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About Federal & State Courts

The Federal Judicial Center is an educational organization founded by Congress. The paragraphs below are excerpts from their "What Do the Federal Courts Do?", which is a summary of the United States judicial system.

"A court is an institution that the government sets up to settle disputes through a legal process," and the Federal system has "two kinds of . . . courts: the trial court and the appellate court. The trial court's basic function is to resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right. The appellate court's task is to determine whether the law was applied correctly in the trial court."

In addition to federal level courts, the states have their own court systems. "Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution by Congress to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. State and local courts are established by a state (within states there are also local courts that are established by cities, counties, and other municipalities, which we are including in the general discussion of state courts)."

"The differences between federal courts and state courts are further defined by jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear. Federal court jurisdiction is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear

  • cases in which the United States is a party;
  • cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction);
  • cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction); and
  • bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases."

"State courts, in contrast, have broad jurisdiction, so the cases individual citizens are most likely to be involved in--such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes--are usually tried in state courts. The only cases state courts are not allowed to hear are lawsuits against the United States and those involving certain specific federal laws: criminal, antitrust, bankruptcy, patent, copyright, and some maritime law cases"

Cases tried in the federal and state courts can be civil or criminal. "Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole."

Other aspects managed by the judicial branch are court rules that define how a case will be tried, sentencing regulations, juries, specialized courts such as those for bankruptcy or the military, and probation/pretrial services. Prisons, however, are under the auspices of the executive branch's Department of Justice.

Learn more by visiting the Federal Judicial Center and by exploring the educational materials at the US Courts website.

How Criminal Cases Move through the Federal Courts

From the Federal Judicial Center. 

Structure of the Federal Courts

The Federal Judicial Center is an educational organization founded by Congress. Below is a summary from some of their web pages titled "What Do the Federal Courts Do?"

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 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." [The 12th Circuit is not shown on the map, but it comprises the Federal/D.C. Circuit.] 

The US Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority in the country. It is the court of last resort and the court with the most power to enforce checks and balances on the federal executive and legislative branches.

Next in authority are the 12 federal Appellate courts that hear appeals from the District Courts.

The District, or trial, Courts hear both civil and criminal cases that fall within federal jurisdiction. Along with the continental US district courts, the US territories of the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands each have a federal district court.

Each state has its own judicial hierarchy culminating in that state's Supreme court. Counties and cities also have their own court systems and jurisdictions that define which cases may be heard in which courts.

How Civil Cases Move through the Federal Courts

From the Federal Judicial Center. The Links connect to the Center's information on that topic.

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