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Federal Court Structure

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The first court a defendant or plaintiff will enter is a United States District Court. There are 94 district courts in the country.

While the proceedings here — especially if the matter is a criminal one rather than a civil one — are normally overseen by United States District Judges, sometimes a United States Magistrate Judge is appointed to assist a US District Judge. By default, Magistrate Judges lack much of the power granted to District Court Judges, but certain rights to be heard by a District Court Judge can be waived for certain proceedings. This is especially true in civil cases. In criminal cases, a final ruling must always be made by a US District Court Judge, and Magistrate Judges can usually do no more than hear a person’s plea, make rulings on preliminary motions like motions to extend due dates and bond hearings, and make recommendations to the US District Court Judge.

District Courts, for the most part, deal with finding facts relevant to the holding and determining what law is applied to those facts.


When a motion is denied by a US District Court, a party may appeal to the United States Court of Appeals over the relevant area. There are technically thirteen different Courts of Appeals — also known as Circuit Courts — around the country: the First through Eleventh Circuits thus named as they are numbered, the D.C. Circuit Court, and the Federal Circuit Court. The Federal Circuit Court usually only handles issues of national importance, and is thus rarely used by members of the public. The others have authority over final decisions of the respective US District Court in most circumstances.

Usually, the Courts of Appeals deal more with how the law is applied to the facts found by the District Court. Courts of Appeals rarely consider new facts not previously heard before the District Court. They are more concerned that the correct law was applied to the facts found, that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in some way, and — if a substantive change in law has occurred since the District Court’s decision — applying that relevant change to the facts found by the District Court.

Circuit Courts can affirm a holding (leave it in place, agreeing with the District Court), remand a decision with or without instructions to act, or vacate a decision and order a new review. In some rare instances, Courts of Appeals will vacate without remanding, sending some criminal defendants home without needing to wait for the District Court to schedule a hearing or make a new ruling, but this is very, very rare.


The next stop in the process is the United States Supreme Court, the highest court in the land (also called SCOTUS, Supreme Court of the United States).

SCOTUS is normally most concerned with issues of national importance and Circuit Court splits, decisions which show that certain Courts of Appeals disagree with how to apply certain laws to certain facts, signaling the need of review by the high court to settle the dispute.

The US Supreme Court is not supposed to correct all errors or wrongs that happened in the lower courts. That job belongs to the appropriate Court of Appeals.

Out of the usually nine justices on the Supreme Court, four need to grant a petition for a writ of certiorari (Latin for: “to make sure”). If at least four justices vote to hear the case, certiorari will have been granted, oral arguments will be scheduled, and the case is made. If not enough justices vote to grant certiorari, then certiorari is denied. This does not necessarily mean that the Supreme Court agrees with the courts below or believes there is no error in the case. It simply means that:

  1. There’s no relevant Circuit Court split they wish to settle at the time or
  2. The issue in the petition for a writ of certiorari before them does not present a large enough issue to effect more than the case at hand or a handful of other cases.

Out of the approximately 10,000 petitions for a writ of certiorari filed every year, only between 100 to 200 are granted and heard, and that normally takes a full year.

If the issue is substantial enough and the petition clearly presents the issue, it does raise the chances of getting certiorari granted by the high court.

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