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Understanding Federal Courts

Other Court Basics

This article explains the Federal Court System versus the State Court System. It details the types of cases heard in each system and how judges are selected. This article was written for the U.S. Courts website, but is reproduced here.

All text below reproduced from the US Courts website.

Court Structure: Federal Courts vs. State Courts

The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land in the United States. It creates a federal system of government in which power is shared between the federal government and the state governments. Due to federalism, both the federal government and each of the state governments have their own court systems. Discover the differences in structure, judicial selection, and cases heard in both systems by clicking here.


To further understand the Federal Courts, click here for the packet from 

The Federal Court System

The State Court System

Article III of the Constitution invests the judicial power of the United States in the federal court system. Article III, Section 1 specifically creates the U.S. Supreme Court and gives Congress the authority to create the lower federal courts.

The Constitution and laws of each state establish the state courts. A court of last resort, often known as a Supreme Court, is usually the highest court. Some states also have an intermediate Court of Appeals. Below these appeals courts are the state trial courts. Some are referred to as Circuit or District Courts.

Congress has used this power to establish the 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals, the 94 U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Court of Claims, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. U.S. Bankruptcy Courts handle bankruptcy cases. Magistrate Judges handle some District Court matters.

States also usually have courts that handle specific legal matters, e.g., probate court (wills and estates); juvenile court; family court; etc.

Parties dissatisfied with a decision of a U.S. District Court, the U.S. Court of Claims, and/or the U.S. Court of International Trade may appeal to a U.S. Court of Appeals.

Parties dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court may take their case to the intermediate Court of Appeals.

A party may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court usually is under no obligation to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of federal constitutional questions.

Parties have the option to ask the highest state court to hear the case.


Only certain cases are eligible for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.


Structure of the Federal Courts

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United states. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Surpeme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. In the federal court system's present form, 94 district-level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court.

Trial Courts - Federal

The U.S. district courts are the primary trial courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court. There are two special trial courts that have nationwide jurisdiction over certain types of cases. The Court of International Trade addresses cases involving international trade and customs issues. The United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, unlawful “takings” of private property by the federal government, vaccine injury cases, and a variety of other claims against the United States. Three territories of the United States— the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands—have U.S. district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases.

Appellate Courts - Federal

The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

Texas is in the fifth circut. 

United States Supreme Court - Federal

The U.S. Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices. At its discretion, and within certain guidelines established by Congress, the Supreme Court hears a small percentage of the cases it is asked to decide each year. Supreme Court cases are usually selected either because the lower courts have differed, or “split,” on a legal issue or they involve important questions about the Constitution or federal law.