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Introduction to Federal and State Court Systems: Federal Court System


Trial Courts

  • Principal trial courts in the federal system
  • 94 federal judicial districts (at least 1 in each state, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico)
  • Each district includes a bankruptcy court
  • Trial court proceedings generally involve a single judge
  • Trials can be brought before the bench or a jury
  • Select decisions published in Federal Supplement (F Supp)
  • Hears cases involving international trade and customs issues

Types of cases include:

  • Disputes over federal contracts
  • Patent and copyright claims
  • Vaccine injury claims
  • Indian claims
  • Federal eminent domain
  • Other monetary claims against the United States

Intermediate Appellate Courts

  • 12 Regional circuit courts of appeals
  • Hears appeals from district courts and certain federal administrative agencies
  • Typical cases go before three-judge panel
  • En banc panels review decisions of a three-judge panel
  • Intermediate appellate courts do not hear additional evidence
  • Published decisions found in Federal Reporter (F); selected unpublished opinions may be found in Federal Appendix (F App'x)
  • Handles appeals in specialized cases (i.e., patent law)
  • Also hears appeals of cases from the US Court of International Trade and the US Court of Federal Claims

US Supreme Court

  • Highest court in the United States
  • One Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices
  • All nine justices participate in decision with exceptions (i.e., ethics conflict)
  • Court has discretion over the cases it hears (four justices must agree to hear a case)
  • Court typically selects cases that present an important constitutional question or issue of federal law that needs to be clarified (i.e., circuit court splits with contradictory rulings)
  • Court hears approximately 100-150 cases per year
  • Decisions are published in United States Reports (US), US Supreme Court Reports (Lawyer's Edition) (L Ed), and Supreme Court Reporter (S Ct)