The Federal Court System

The federal set of courts has three levels:

1.  District courts

2.  Circuit Courts of Appeal

3.  U.S. Supreme Court


1.  District Courts

Each state is divided into one or more “federal judicial districts.”

Each district has at least one federal district court.

The federal district courts are the trial courts of the federal system.

Any litigant who loses in a federal district court (the trial court) has a right to appeal to the Court of Appeals (See below: Circuit Courts of Appeal).


2.  Circuit Courts of Appeal

The federal judicial districts described above are grouped into 13 “judicial circuits.”

In each of these circuits, there is a “Court of Appeals.”

The circuits are numbered First through Eleventh, plus the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit.

The First through Eleventh each cover the district courts in three or more states.

Example:  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

The Ninth Circuit covers all districts located in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam and Hawaii.

Thus, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hears all appeals from the federal district courts in Arizona.


3.  U.S. Supreme Court

When a federal litigant loses in the Court of Appeals, the loser may petition the Supreme Court to hear the case.

This petition takes the form of a “writ of certiorari.”

It is up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to grant certiorari—to hear the appeal.

The Supreme Court is never required to hear an appeal. The court exercises its discretion to hear the case only if four Justices vote to grant certiorari.


There are also specialized courts, such as Bankruptcy Court. Bankruptcy is always in federal court because bankruptcy is a creature of federal, not state, law. Also, Military Courts.