federal court system | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

The Federal Court System, also known as the United States Judiciary, is the system of courts that interprets and applies federal laws in the United States.

The Federal Court System is like a pyramid with three main levels. Each level serves a unique role, from hearing cases first to making the final decision on a case’s legality. These levels include the district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court.

District Courts: The Trial Courts

District courts, at the pyramid’s base, are the federal system’s trial courts. In every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, there’s at least one district court. These courts hold the power to hear both civil and criminal cases linked to federal laws and regulations.

Besides that, they also have authority over specific cases. These include disagreements between states, disputes involving ambassadors, and conflicts where the U.S. is a participant. Therefore, district courts play a crucial role in the federal judicial system by making the first legal judgments on cases.

Courts of Appeals: The Intermediate Courts

Moving up the pyramid, we find the courts of appeals. They act as intermediate appellate courts, reviewing district courts’ decisions. There are 11 circuits in total, including the District of Columbia Circuit and circuits from First through Eleventh.

Each circuit contains several states and a corresponding court of appeals. These courts review the decisions passed by the district courts in their circuit. Besides, they also assess specific decisions from other federal agencies. Therefore, the courts of appeals work to ensure that the law applies correctly at the district court level.

The Supreme Court: The Highest Court

At the pyramid’s apex is the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the U.S. legal system. It has the power to hear appeals from the courts of appeals and certain state courts’ decisions. Any decision made by the Supreme Court is final and binding on all other federal and state courts.

The Supreme Court comprises nine justices appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Their role is to ensure the constitutionality of laws, a power known as judicial review. This means that the Supreme Court can declare federal laws and acts of Congress unconstitutional, making it a crucial player in shaping U.S. legal policies and precedents.

Interactions Within the Federal Court System

Understanding how these three court levels interact is also crucial. Typically, a case begins at the district court level. If a party is unhappy with the decision, they can take it to the circuit’s court of appeals. Here, a panel of judges reviews the case.

If the party still disagrees with the decision, they can appeal to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction. This means they can choose which cases to hear. As such, most cases end at the appeals court level.


In summary, the Federal Court System or the U.S. Judiciary interprets and applies federal laws across the country. It consists of three key levels: district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. Each level has specific roles and responsibilities in ensuring justice and upholding the Constitution. This system ensures that every citizen gets a fair chance at justice, safeguarding the rule of law and maintaining order in society.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/19/2023

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