The District court system has three main levels: District courts (the trial court), Circuit courts which are the first level of appeal, and the Supreme Court of the United States, the final level of appeal in the federal system. There are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court throughout the country.
Courts in the US District Court system work differently in many ways than state courts. The primary difference for civil cases (as opposed to criminal cases) is the types of cases that can be heard in the federal system. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes. The federal district court is the starting point for any case arising under federal statutes, the Constitution, or treaties. This type of jurisdiction is called “original jurisdiction.” Sometimes, the jurisdiction of state courts will overlap with that of federal courts, meaning that some cases can be brought in both courts.
Cases that are entirely based on state law may be brought in federal court under the court’s “diversity jurisdiction.” Diversity jurisdiction allows an Attorney of one state to serve a witness in a U.S.D.C Subpoena when the witness is located in a different state.
The district courts are the general trial courts of the US court system. Each district court has at least one United States District Judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term. District courts handle trials within the federal court system. The districts are the same as those for the U.S. Attorneys, and the U.S. Attorney is the primary prosecutor for the federal government in his or her respective area.
District court judges are responsible for managing the court and supervising the court’s employees. They are able to continue to serve so long as they maintain “good behavior,” and they can be impeached and removed by Congress. There are over 670 district court judges nationwide.
Some tasks of the district court are given to federal magistrate judges. Magistrates are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges and serve for a term of eight years if full-time and four years if part-time, but they can be reappointed after completion of their term. In criminal matters, magistrate judges may oversee certain cases, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, conduct initial hearings, set bail, decide certain motions (such as a motion to suppress evidence), and other similar actions. In civil cases, magistrates often handle a variety of issues such as pre-trial motions and discovery.
District trial courts have also been established for a few subject-specific areas. Each federal district also has a bankruptcy court for those proceedings. Additionally, some courts have nationwide jurisdiction for issues such as tax (United States Tax Court), claims against the federal government (United States Court of Federal Claims), and international trade (United States Court of International Trade).
Once the federal district court has decided a case, the case can be appealed to a United States court of appeal. There are twelve federal circuits that divide the country into different regions. The Fifth Circuit, for example, includes the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Cases from the district courts of those states are appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. Additionally, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a nationwide jurisdiction over very specific issues such as patents.
Each circuit court has multiple judges, ranging from six on the First Circuit to twenty-nine on the Ninth Circuit. Circuit court judges are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Any case may be appealed to the circuit court once the district court has finalized a decision (some issues can be appealed before a final decision by making an “interlocutory appeal”). Appeals to circuit courts are first heard by a panel, consisting of three circuit court judges. Parties file “briefs” to the court, arguing why the trial court’s decision should be “affirmed” or “reversed.” After the briefs are filed, the court will schedule “oral argument” in which the lawyers come before the court to make their arguments and answer the judges’ questions.
Though it is rare, the entire circuit court may consider certain appeals in a process called an “en banc hearing.” (The Ninth Circuit has a different process for en banc than the rest of the circuits.) En banc opinions tend to carry more weight and are usually decided only after a panel has first heard the case. Once a panel has ruled on an issue and “published” the opinion, no future panel can overrule the previous decision. The panel can, however, suggest that the circuit take up the case en banc to reconsider the first panel’s decision.
Beyond the Federal Circuit, a few courts have been established to deal with appeals on specific subjects such as veterans claims (United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims) and military matters (United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces).
After the circuit court or state supreme court has ruled on a case, either party may choose to appeal to the Supreme Court. Unlike circuit court appeals, however, the Supreme Court is usually not required to hear the appeal. Parties may file a “writ of certiorari” to the court, asking it to hear the case. If the writ is granted, the Supreme Court will take briefs and conduct oral argument. If the writ is not granted, the lower court’s opinion stands. Certiorari is not often granted; less than 1% of appeals to the high court are actually heard by it. The Court typically hears cases when there are conflicting decisions across the country on a particular issue or when there is an egregious error in a case.
The members of the Court are referred to as “justices” and, like other federal judges, they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term. There are nine justices on the court – eight associate justices and one chief justice. The Constitution sets no requirements for Supreme Court justices, though all current members of the court are lawyers and most have served as circuit court judges. Justices are also often former law professors. The chief justice acts as the administrator of the court and is chosen by the President and approved by the Congress when the position is vacant.
The Central District of California is the largest federal district by population. it includes all five counties that make up the Greater Los Angeles Area. By contrast, New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area are divided between the Southern District of New York (which includes Manhattan and The Bronx) and the Eastern District of New York (which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County and Suffolk County). New York suburbs in Connecticut and New Jersey are covered by the District of Connecticut and District of New Jersey, respectively.
The Southern District of New York and the Central District of California are the largest federal districts by number of judges, with 28 and 27, respectively.