Case Law-Federal Courts

The federal court system is somewhat more integrated than the state courts because the federal courts do not necessarily recognize state boundaries in terms of their authority. The federal courts consist of the Supreme Court, circuit, and district courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the most important federal court. It sits in Washington, D.C., and is composed of nine judges, or justices, who are nominated by the president and then approved by the Senate. The sitting justices are all attorneys, and in fact, most of them are former judges from lower courts who have been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, there is no requirement that a U.S. Supreme Court justice be an attorney.

The United States Supreme Court is a court of discretionary appeal. That means it exercises its discretion in deciding which cases it will hear. As a court of appeal, it does not actually try cases, but rather, it simply reviews legal briefs as submitted by attorneys or litigants. It hears oral arguments that are limited to an hour or two and thereafter renders a written decision. The U.S. Supreme Court does not actually hear from witnesses, hear evidence, or resolve factual disputes as might be done by a jury. Rather, it simply reviews the record presented from the trial that occurred in the lower court, and then determines whether or not there was a procedural, evidentiary, or constitutional error committed at the trial court level.

In order to have a case presented to the U.S. Supreme Court, the party who is requesting the hearing must first file a petition. If the petition is denied, the case will not be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. If the petition is granted, the nine justices will hear the appeal and render a decision. Thousands of cases are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court every year, but only a very small percentage of them are actually heard.

Example: In the 2002 term, 8,255 cases were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the U.S. Supreme Court only issued written decisions in seventy-nine cases.

The federal court system is essentially shaped like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court is, as its name suggests, supreme and is final in the sense that it is the court of last resort. There is no higher court. Below the U.S. Supreme Court are eleven U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals. The United States is divided into eleven numbered federal circuits, plus two additional circuits designated the D.C. Circuit and the Federal Circuit. Within each of those circuits is a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. These courts hear appeals from either the trial court below or from certain federal agencies that have a right of direct appeal to the U.S. Circuit Courts.

These U.S. Circuit Courts are somewhat similar to the U.S. Supreme Court in that they are simply courts of appeal. The U.S. Circuit Courts do not actually try cases—they do not hear evidence, the litigants do not testify in front of them, and they do not typically resolve factual questions as would be done by a jury. The U.S. Courts of Appeals simply review briefs submitted to them by attorneys, then hear oral argument from the attorneys, and thereafter render a written decision or issue an order either affirming, modifying, or overruling the decision from the trial court.

The diagram is designed to show in a general framework the layout of the court system on both the federal level and the state level.


COURT                       FEDERAL SYSTEM                        STATE SYSTEM

Highest Court            U.S. Supreme Court                      Name may vary from state to state,
                                                                                          but frequently called Supreme Court.

Court of Appeals       U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals     Name may vary from state to state.

Trial Court                  U.S. District Court                           Name may vary from state to state. 
                                                                                              Some states have a single-tiered trial 
                                                                                              court. Other states have a two-tiered 
                                                                                              trial court system, which means that 
                                                                                              there are two different levels—one 
                                                                                              being a higher trial court for more 
                                                                                              serious matters and the other being a 
                                                                                              lower trial court for less serious 

Below the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals are the U.S. District Courts, which are the trial courts within the federal system. The United States is divided into ninety-four federal districts. For instance, in the state of Virginia there are two federal districts: the Eastern District of Virginia and the Western District of Virginia. In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, there are several different divisions that are part of that federal district. A division simply means that there is a courthouse located in that locality to serve the counties or cities within proximity of that courthouse.

The United States District Courts are presided over by United States District judges, who are nominated by the President to their position and then approved by the Senate. There may also be magistrates within the United States District Court, who are judicial officers with the authority to hear certain types of cases assigned to them by the United States District judge.

The United States District Court as a trial court is a court of limited jurisdiction, meaning that it has only limited authority to hear certain types of cases. In the criminal area, the United States District Courts can only hear cases that involve any federal crime (i.e., a violation of federal law). For instance, referring back to the Rodney King case, the police officers in that case were charged with a violation of federal civil rights law. They were tried in a United States District Court before a United States District Court judge with a jury that was composed of citizens within that United States district.

United States District Courts, as courts of limited jurisdiction, can only hear cases that involve either a question of federal law (federal question) or that involve disputes between citizens of different states. This latter requirement, dealing with citizens of different states, is known as diversity jurisdiction in the federal courts. For example, a citizen of the state of Connecticut may sue a citizen of the state of Mississippi in the United States District Court of Mississippi relating to an automobile accident that occurred in Ohio.

Federal law not only requires that there be diversity of citizenship, but also that the amount sued for (the amount in controversy) be at least $75,000. As such, if you were involved in an automobile accident in the state of Texas while you were a citizen of Texas and the other party likewise was a citizen of Texas, you could not bring that suit in federal court because there is no diversity of citizenship. If, on the other hand, the other party to the automobile accident was driving a United States postal truck, the case would be brought in the United States District Court, since it is a claim against the U.S. Government based on a federal statute (e.g., the Federal Tort Claims Act).

A criminal case is, in essence, a lawsuit brought by the government acting through a prosecutor against an individual who is accused of violating a criminal statute.

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