Explaining the Structure
The federal courts have a three-part structure, as explained in the following diagram:
As the diagram shows, the structure of the federal courts is roughly pyramidal. At the top of the pyramid is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system. The Supreme Court is often called "the highest court in the land" because it hears appeals from state courts as well as federal courts. The Supreme Court has nine justices and begins its term on the first Monday in October of each year.
The Supreme Court hears most cases on appeal. Litigants wishing to appeal their cases from a state supreme court or from a federal Court of Appeals must file for a "writ of certiorari" . If four of the nine Justices agree to issue a writ, the Court will hear the case. The Court also has limited "original jurisdiction" in some cases.
The Federal Courts of Appeal are the middle part of the pyramid. The Courts of Appeal are divided into twelve different regions, often known as "circuits". These courts are often known as "circuit courts". Eleven of the twelve circuit courts handle cases from different states -- for example, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta handles cases from Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The twelfth circuit court is the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and is located in Washington. Additionally, there is also a United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears certain specialized cases.
The Federal District Courts are the lowest part of the pyramid. There are 94 judicial districts across the country, including judicial districts in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.
Navigating the Structure
Most cases start at the district court level. Once a district court judge issues a ruling, or a jury issues a verdict , a case can proceed to the circuit court level, or even all the way up to the Supreme Court. However, cases can move down the structure as well. If a higher court overturns a decision of a lower court, the higher court will usually remand the case to a lower court. A complex case may go back and forth among the different levels one or more times.
The following flow chart describes how an individual case moves between the different levels of the court system:
For example, a case would begin at the district court level. After the district court issued its opinion, a party could appeal to the circuit court level. The appeal would then be heard by a three-judge panel of the membership of the circuit court.
After the circuit court issued its decision on the appeal, the case could go in a number of directions. The circuit court could remand the case back to the district court for further consideration. One of the parties could request a rehearing of the case by the circuit court as a whole -- what is referred to as an "en banc" panel of all the judges appointed to that circuit court. One of the parties could also appeal directly to the Supreme Court by requesting certiorari.
If four Supreme Court justices chose to issue a writ of certiorari, the Court would then issue a decision on the case. The Court could then remand the case back to either the district court or the circuit court, depending on its decision.