The Federal Court System


There are ninety-four U.S. district courts in the fifty states and U.S. territories, of which eighty-nine are in the states (at least one in each state). The others are in Washington, DC; Puerto Rico; Guam; the U.S. Virgin Islands; and the Northern Mariana Islands. These are the trial courts of the national system, in which federal cases are tried, witness testimony is heard, and evidence is presented. No district court crosses state lines, and a single judge oversees each one. Some cases are heard by a jury, and some are not.

There are thirteen U.S. courts of appeals, or circuit courts, eleven across the nation and two in Washington, DC (the DC circuit and the federal circuit courts), as illustrated in Figure. Each court is overseen by a rotating panel of three judges who do not hold trials but instead review the rulings of the trial (district) courts within their geographic circuit. As authorized by Congress, there are currently 179 judges. The circuit courts are often referred to as the intermediate appellate courts of the federal system, since their rulings can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Moreover, different circuits can hold legal and cultural views, which can lead to differing outcomes on similar legal questions. In such scenarios, clarification from the U.S. Supreme Court might be needed.

A map of the Unites States titled “U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. District Courts”. The map shows the thirteen courts of appeals and the geographical areas those courts cover. The first region covers the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. The second region covers the states of Vermont, New York, and Connecticut. The third region covers the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. The fourth region covers the states of Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The fifth region covers the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The sixth region covers the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The seventh region covers the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. The eighth region covers the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas. The ninth region covers the states of Washington, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Hawaii, Alaska, and Arizona. The tenth region covers the states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. The eleventh region covers the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. The twelfth court is labeled “DC Federal Circuit” and the thirteenth court is labeled “DC Supreme Court”.
There are thirteen judicial circuits: eleven in the geographical areas marked on the map and two in Washington, DC.

Today’s federal court system was not an overnight creation; it has been changing and transitioning for more than two hundred years through various acts of Congress. Since district courts are not called for in Article III of the Constitution, Congress established them and narrowly defined their jurisdiction, at first limiting them to handling only cases that arose within the district. Beginning in 1789 when there were just thirteen, the district courts became the basic organizational units of the federal judicial system. Gradually over the next hundred years, Congress expanded their jurisdiction, in particular over federal questions, which enables them to review constitutional issues and matters of federal law. In the Judicial Code of 1911, Congress made the U.S. district courts the sole general-jurisdiction trial courts of the federal judiciary, a role they had previously shared with the circuit courts.“The U.S. District Courts and the Federal Judiciary.” Federal Judicial Center. (March 1, 2016).

The circuit courts started out as the trial courts for most federal criminal cases and for some civil suits, including those initiated by the United States and those involving citizens of different states. But early on, they did not have their own judges; the local district judge and two Supreme Court justices formed each circuit court panel. (That is how the name “circuit” arose—judges in the early circuit courts traveled from town to town to hear cases, following prescribed paths or circuits to arrive at destinations where they were needed.“Circuit Riding.” Encyclopedia Britannica. (March 1, 2016).) Circuit courts also exercised appellate jurisdiction (meaning they receive appeals on federal district court cases) over most civil suits that originated in the district courts; however, that role ended in 1891, and their appellate jurisdiction was turned over to the newly created circuit courts, or U.S. courts of appeals. The original circuit courts—the ones that did not have “of appeals” added to their name—were abolished in 1911, fully replaced by these new circuit courts of appeals.“The U.S. Circuit Courts and the Federal Judiciary.” Federal Judicial Center. (March 1, 2016).

While we often focus primarily on the district and circuit courts of the federal system, other federal trial courts exist that have more specialized jurisdictions, such as the Court of International Trade, Court of Federal Claims, and U.S. Tax Court. Specialized federal appeals courts include the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Cases from any of these courts may also be appealed to the Supreme Court, although that result is very rare.

On the U.S. Supreme Court, there are nine justices—one chief justice and eight associate justices. Circuit courts each contain three justices, whereas federal district courts have just one judge each. As the national court of last resort for all other courts in the system, the Supreme Court plays a vital role in setting the standards of interpretation that the lower courts follow. The Supreme Court’s decisions are binding across the nation and establish the precedent by which future cases are resolved in all the system’s tiers.

The U.S. court system operates on the principle of stare decisis (Latin for stand by things decided), which means that today’s decisions are based largely on rulings from the past, and tomorrow’s rulings rely on what is decided today. Stare decisis is especially important in the U.S. common law system, in which the consistency of precedent ensures greater certainty and stability in law and constitutional interpretation, and it also contributes to the solidity and legitimacy of the court system itself. As former Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo summarized it years ago, “Adherence to precedent must then be the rule rather than the exception if litigants are to have faith in the even-handed administration of justice in the courts.”Benjamin N. Cardozo. 1921. The Nature of the Judicial Process. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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With a focus on federal courts and the public, this website reveals the different ways the federal courts affect the lives of U.S. citizens and how those citizens interact with the courts.

When the legal facts of one case are the same as the legal facts of another, stare decisis dictates that they should be decided the same way, and judges are reluctant to disregard precedent without justification. However, that does not mean there is no flexibility or that new precedents or rulings can never be created. They often are. Certainly, court interpretations can change as times and circumstances change—and as the courts themselves change when new judges are selected and take their place on the bench. For example, the membership of the Supreme Court had changed entirely between Plessey v. Ferguson (1896), which brought the doctrine of “separate but equal” and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which required integration.Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896); Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).