The U.S. court system is, much like the government, built upon hierarchy. The federal court system has three levels, each of which handles different levels of judicial review. Cases can move up through these levels, and only a select percent are taken on by the top level, the Supreme Court. This is the structure of the U.S. federal court system.
With 94 courts total, district courts outnumber the courts on the upper echelon of the hierarchy. Each of the 50 states is home to at least one district court, and regions such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have district courts.
Nearly all cases start at the district court level, sometimes moving up to a higher court when the need presents itself. Additionally, some cases can move down to district courts from higher levels, should a higher court overturn a lower court’s decision and remand the case. In general, many cases are settled at this level. However, particularly complex cases often must move throughout the levels of the federal courts, sliding up and down like an elevator as different courts debate different rulings.
Courts of Appeals
The 94 Federal District Courts are gerrymandered into 12 circuits. These regions each have one Court of Appeals, which acts as the ringleader for all of the circuit’s cases. Once a ruling has been made by a district court, the corresponding appellate court can be called upon to hear the case instead. Jurisdiction of special appeals, such as those involving patent law, falls under the umbrella of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Unlike district courts, which are also known as “trial courts,” appellate courts do not hear witness testimony or utilize a jury. Rather than analyzing case evidence, a Court of Appeals analyzes the case itself—namely, “that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.” In cases where the Court of Appeals identifies a shortfall on behalf of a district court, it can overturn the decision and send the case up or down the Federal Circuit hierarchy.
The Supreme Court
If you’re familiar with one court, it’s probably the Supreme Court, the end-all, be-all court for some of the nation’s most nuanced cases. Created by Article III of the U.S. constitution and led by nine justices, cases taken by the Supreme Court have changed the course of history for the entire country. Less than two percent of appeals are brought before the Supreme Court, with more than 7,000 cases sent its way each year. Rulings by the Supreme Court are considered the law of the land, as far as interpretation of law is concerned. Landmark rulings by the Supreme Court, such as the legalization of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges and the desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, have set a societal and cultural standard for life in America.