Introduction to the Federal Court System
U.S. District Courts. Congress has divided the country into ninety-four federal judicial districts. In each district there is a U.S. district court. The U.S. district courts are the federal trial courts -- the places where federal cases are tried, witnesses testify, and juries serve. Within each district is a U.S. bankruptcy court, a part of the district court that administers the bankruptcy laws. Congress uses state boundaries to help define the districts. Some districts cover the entire state, like Idaho. Other districts cover just part of a state, like the Northern District of California.
U.S. Courts of Appeals. Congress placed each of the ninety-four districts in one of twelve regional circuits. Each circuit has a court of appeals. If you lose a case in a district court, you can ask the court of appeals to review the case to see if the district judge applied the law correctly. There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, whose jurisdiction is defined by subject matter rather than by geography. It hears appeals from certain courts and agencies, such as the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and certain types of cases from the district courts (mainly lawsuits by people claiming their patents have been infringed).
U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States, in Washington, D.C., is the highest court in the nation. If you lose a case in the court of appeals (or, sometimes, in a state supreme court), you can ask the Supreme Court to hear your appeal. However, unlike a court of appeals, the Supreme Court doesn't have to hear it. In fact, the Supreme Court hears only a very small percentage of the cases it is asked to review.
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