US Court Structure

At the International Institute for Transcribers and Court Reporters, we want our students to be familiar with the court structure in their country of study.  This is an overview of what the court structure is in the United States.

The judicial system in the United States is unique insofar as it is actually made up of two different court systems:  the federal court system and the state court system.  While each court system is responsible for hearing certain types of cases, neither is completely independent of the other, and the systems often interact.  Furthermore, solving legal disputes and vindicating legal rights are key goals of both court systems.

Federal Court System:

The term “federal court” can actually refer to one of two types of courts.  The first type of court is what is known as an Article III court.  These courts get their name from the fact that they derive their power from Article III of the Constitution.  These courts include:

(1) the U.S. District Courts,
(2) the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal, and
(3) the U.S. Supreme Court.

They also include two special courts:
(a) the U.S. Court of Claims and
(b) the U.S. Court of International Trade.

These courts are special because, unlike the other courts, they are not courts of general jurisdiction.  Courts of general jurisdiction can hear almost any case.  All judges of Article III courts are appointed by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate and hold office during good behavior.

The second type of court also is established by Congress.  These courts are:

(1) magistrate courts,
(2) bankruptcy courts,
(3) the U.S. Court of Military Appeals,
(4) the U.S. Tax Court, and
(5) the U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals.

The judges of these courts are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  They hold office for a set number of years, usually about 15.  Magistrate and bankruptcy courts are attached to each U.S. District Court.  The U.S. Court of Military Appeals, U.S. Tax Court, and U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals are called Article I or legislative courts.

U.S. District Courts:

There are 94 U.S. District Courts in the United States.  Every state has at least one district court and some large states, such as California, have as many as four.  Each district court has between 2 and 28 judges.  The U.S. District Courts are trial courts, or courts of original jurisdiction.  This means that most federal cases begin here.  U.S. District Courts hear both civil and criminal cases.  In many cases, the judge determines issues of law, while the jury (or judge sitting without a jury) determines findings of fact.

U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal:

There are 13 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal in the United States.  These courts are divided into 12 regional circuits and sit in various cities throughout the country.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the 13th Court) sits in Washington.  With the exception of criminal cases in which a defendant is found not guilty, any party who is dissatisfied with the judgment of a U.S. District Court (or the findings of certain administrative agencies) may appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in his/her geographical district.  These courts will examine the trial record for only mistakes of law; the facts have already been determined by the U.S. District Court.  Therefore, the court usually will neither review the facts of the case nor take any additional evidence.  When hearing cases, these courts usually sit in panels of three judges.

U.S. Supreme Court:

The Supreme Court of the United States sits at the apex of the federal court system.  It is made up of nine judges, known as justices, and is presided over by the Chief Justice.  It sits in Washington, D.C.  Parties who are not satisfied with the decision of a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal (or, in rare cases, of a U.S. District Court) or a state supreme court can petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.  This is done mainly by a legal procedure known as a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari.  The Court decides whether to accept such cases.  Each year, the Court accepts between 100 and 150 of the some 7,000 cases it is asked to hear for argument.  The cases typically fit within general criteria for oral arguments.  Four justices must agree to hear the case.  While primarily an appellate court, the Court does have original jurisdiction over cases involving ambassadors and two or more states.

Special Article III Courts:

1. U.S. Court of Claims:  This court sits in Washington, D.C. and handles cases involving suits against the government.

2. U.S. Court of International Trade:  This court sits in New York and handles cases involving tariffs and international trade disputes.

Special Courts Created by Congress:

1. Magistrate judges:  These judges handle certain criminal and civil matters, often with the consent of the parties.

2. Bankruptcy courts:  These courts handle cases arising under the Bankruptcy Code.

3. U.S. Court of Military Appeals:  This court is the final appellate court for cases arising under the Uniform Code of  Military Justice.

4. U.S. Tax Court:  This court handles cases arising over alleged tax deficiencies.

5. U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals:  This court handles certain cases arising from the denial of veteran’s benefits.

State Court Systems:

No two state court systems are exactly alike.  Nevertheless, there are sufficient similarities to provide an example of what a typical state court system looks like.  Most state court systems are made up of:

(1) two sets of trial courts:
(a) trial courts of limited jurisdiction (probate, family, traffic, etc.), and
(b) trial courts of general jurisdiction (main trial-level courts);

(2) intermediate appellate courts (in many, but not all, states); and

(3) the highest state courts (called by various names).

Unlike federal judges, most state court judges are not appointed for life but are either elected or appointed (or a combination of both) for a certain number of years.

Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction:

Trial courts of limited jurisdiction are courts that deal with only specific types of cases.  They are often located in/near the county courthouse and are usually presided over by a single judge.  A judge sitting without a jury hears most of the cases heard by these courts.  Some examples of trial courts of limited jurisdiction include:

1. Probate court:  This court handles matters concerning administering the estate of a person who has died (decedent).  It sees that the provisions of a will are carried out or sees that a decedent’s property is distributed according to state law if he/she died intestate (without a will).

2. Family court:  This court handles matters concerning adoption, annulments, divorce, alimony, custody, and child support.

3. Traffic court:  This court usually handles minor violations of traffic laws.

4. Juvenile court:  This court usually handles cases involving delinquent children under a certain age, for example, 18 or 21.

5. Small claims court:  This court usually handles suits between private persons of a relatively low dollar amount, for example, less than $5,000.

6. Municipal court:  This court usually handles cases involving offenses against city ordinances.

Trial Courts of General Jurisdiction:

Trial courts of general jurisdiction are the main trial courts in the state system.  They hear cases outside the jurisdiction of the trial courts of limited jurisdiction.  These involve both civil and criminal cases.  One judge (often sitting with a jury) usually hears them.  In such cases, the judge decides issues of law while the jury decides issues of fact.  A record of the proceeding is made and may be used on appeal.  These courts are called by a variety of names including:

(1) circuit courts,
(2) superior courts,
(3) courts of common pleas,
(4) and even, in New York, supreme courts.

In certain cases, these courts can hear appeals from trial courts of limited jurisdiction.

Intermediate Appellate Courts:

Many, but not all, states have intermediate appellate courts between the trial courts of general jurisdiction and the highest court in the state.  Any party, except in a case where a defendant in a criminal trial has been found not guilty, who is not satisfied with the judgment of a state trial court may appeal the matter to an appropriate intermediate appellate court.  Such appeals are usually a matter of right (meaning the court must hear them).  However, these courts address only alleged procedural mistakes and errors of law made by the trial court.  They will usually neither review the facts of the case which have been established during the trial nor accept additional evidence.  These courts usually sit in panels of two or three judges.

Highest State Courts:

All states have some sort of highest court.  While they are usually referred to as supreme courts, some, such as the highest court in Maryland, are known as courts of appeal.  In states with intermediate appellate courts, the highest state courts usually have discretionary review as to whether to accept a case.  In states without intermediate appellate courts, appeals may usually be taken to the highest state court as a matter of right.  Like the intermediate appellate courts, appeals taken usually allege a mistake of law and not fact.  In addition, many state supreme courts have original jurisdiction in certain matters.  For example, the highest courts in several states have original jurisdiction over controversies regarding elections and the reapportionment of legislative districts.  These courts often sit in panels of three, five, seven, or nine judges/justices.