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What are the three levels of the US federal court system?

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March 10, 2011 12:35AM

LEVELS

The three levels are:

  1. Trial level
  2. Appellate level
  3. Supreme Court

Trial level includes many types of courts, such as the District Court, Bankruptcy Court, Court of Federal Claims and other courts with specialized subject matter jurisdiction.

The Appellate level is the US Court of Appeals, to which an appeal of decisions from any trial level court may be taken.

The Supreme Court is where appeals from decisions in the Court of Appeals are taken. The decision of the Supreme Court is final.

FEDERAL COURTS AT ABOVE LEVELS

The three courts of general jurisdiction that make up the Judicial branch of the federal government are:

US District Courts (trial level)

The 94 US District Courts are the trial courts of the federal judiciary. They have jurisdiction over most types of cases, both civil and criminal, within their geographic areas. Appeals from US District Courts go to the US Court of Appeals Circuit Courts.

US Courts of Appeals (intermediate appellate level)

There are thirteen United States Courts of Appeals Circuit Courts comprising the intermediate appellate step between the District Courts and the Supreme Court. Twelve of these courts handle cases from District Courts within their geographic areas. The Circuits are specifically referred to by name or number; for example, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit or United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The thirteenth Circuit court is the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has nationwide jurisdiction over cases from the courts of International Trade and Federal Claims. They also review patent and copyright cases.

Supreme Court of the United States (final appellate level)

Although we often refer to the highest court in the nation as the US Supreme Court (to distinguish it from state supreme courts), the official name is the Supreme Court of the United States, often abbreviated SCOTUS.

The nine justices (one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices) primarily hear cases on appeal from the Circuit Courts, although they may hear certain types of cases directly from the US District Courts, and also from state supreme courts, if the case involves a preserved matter of federal or constitutional law.

Most cases are submitted to the Supreme Court on a petition for a writ of certiorari, a request for the Court to review the petitioner's case. In 2009, the Court received more than 7,700 petitions, and accepted fewer than 100 for oral argument. The Court has sole discretion over which cases it hears, so the justices choose matters of national importance or issues where the constitution is being interpreted inconsistently or in opposition to the Court's opinion.

For more information, see Related Questions, below.