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U.S. Federal Court System

FindLaw's U.S. federal court system section provides an overview of how these courts operate. It gives a better understanding of the different court structures and their roles, starting with the federal district court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. 

Here, you can also find directories about relevant legal topics related to the U.S. court system. Whether you are curious about learning more about this branch of the government or are engaging with the judicial system, this page is a great place to start.

Functions of the Branches of the U.S. Government

The U.S. government has three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Each of these branches works apart from the others.

The legislative branch, which is the U.S. Congress, enacts federal laws. The executive branch, headed by the President of the United States, enforces these laws. The judicial branch looks into the constitutionality of these laws and resolves controversies relating to their applications.

The Structure of the Federal Court System

The U.S. federal court system is structured into multiple levels, from the District Courts to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Each of these judicial systems has its roles and functions, which are detailed below:

District Courts

United States District courts are where most cases stemming from federal statutes begin. District courts serve as the general trial courts in the federal court system. Across the United States, there are 94 federal judicial districts.

Each of these districts has its own U.S. District Courts that handle broad types of cases. Every district also has a bankruptcy court that works as a unit of the district court. Depending on the size of the state, there may be multiple district courts or just one for the whole state.

Court of Appeals

Congress established 13 federal appellate courts, known as the United States Court of Appeals. The 94 federal judicial districts are grouped into 12 regional circuits. Each of these groups has a U.S. Court of Appeals. 

The court of appeals reviews decisions of the lower courts within their geographic boundary. For instance, if a party loses their case in a federal district court, they can file an appeal with a federal court of appeals. 

The court of appeals will review if the procedures and the legal proceedings are fair. It also looks at the proper application of court rules and laws. In addition, there is one Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

This court has jurisdiction to hear all types of appeals in specialized cases nationwide. This includes cases related to patent laws and those decided by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the U.S. Court of International Trade.

Supreme Court

At the top of the federal court system is the Supreme Court of the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution established the federal judiciary. It states that there is only one supreme court, which is the country's highest court. It has original jurisdiction over certain cases. 

For example, in cases involving ambassadors or suits between different states. The U.S. Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction on other cases involving constitutional or federal law issues.

What Is the Supremacy Clause?

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution contains the Supremacy Clause. This clause establishes that federal law is the supreme law of the land. The impact on the state court system is that judges in every state must follow the U.S. Constitution and federal laws over state laws.

For example, if the federal government enacts a law that preserves and protects Native American tribes and their land in the United States, and a state passes a law that land owned by Native Americans is now state property, the federal law would preempt the state law under the Supremacy Clause.

Hiring an Attorney

Understanding the complexities of federal laws and legal structure can be confusing and overwhelming. Navigating through this legal maze often demands in-depth knowledge and expertise. 

When facing these challenges, the legal advice of litigation and appeals lawyers becomes invaluable. These legal professionals can help you understand the legal process and advocate on your behalf. 

If you are involved with the federal court system, contacting a litigation and appeals attorney helps safeguard your interest and secure your rights.

Learn About the U.S. Federal Court System

  • Introduction to the Federal Court System: This brief overview describes the structure of the U.S. federal court system. Starting from the district courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, it explains its relationship with state courts.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court - Overview: Primer on the various elements and functions of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Constitutional origin, jurisdiction, Justices of the Court, and rulemaking power.
  • The Supremacy Clause and the Doctrine of Preemption: Explanation of how and when federal law trumps state and local law, enshrined in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, with historical developments.
  • Federal Court Finder: Interactive, map-based directory of U.S. federal courts and the boundaries of the different judiciary circuits, including addresses and phone numbers.
  • Bankruptcy Court Listings: Directory of U.S. bankruptcy courts in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, some with multiple districts. This article also contains links to court websites.
  • Immigration Court Listings: A regional directory of the nation's 29 immigration courts, with addresses, names of judges at each court, and links to each court's website (U.S. Department of Justice).

U.S. Federal Court System Articles

Learn About U.S. Federal Court System

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