United States Court System
Confused by the number of courts the legal system uses? We don’t blame you! There are many and the differences between them can range from minor to major. If you have any questions please comment or contact us and we will try to help answer your question.
First of all there are two major court branches: Federal and State.
We will first break down the Federal court system and follow that with the State court system.
Federal Court System
US District Court Info
There are 94 US District courts.
Each state has at least one.
Each court has at least 2 judges and can have as many as 28.
This is where most federal cases begin!
These courts can here both criminal and civil cases.
U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal
13 Circuit Courts of Appeal in the United States.
Anyone found guilty in any court of law may appeal their case to the appropriate court of appeal in their regional area. Federal appeals go to the Federal Court of Appeals which is in Washington D.C.
These courts are usually overseen by three judges.
U.S. Supreme Court
This is the top of the US court system.
It consists of 9 judges (called Justices) that are appointed to life terms by Presidents of the United States. The head judge is called the Chief Justice.
Citizens who are not satisfied with the results of the Appeals courts or State Supreme Courts can petition the U.S. Supreme Court.
This is typically done by filing a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari.
The court typically hears between 100 and 150 cases out of an average of 7,000 petitions.(around 1 in 50-70 depending on the year and number of cases seen and petitioned)
4 Justices must agree to hear the case (this is called a grant cert).
Special Article III Courts
- U.S. Court of Claims: Handles lawsuits against the Government and is found in Washington D.C.
- U.S. Court of International Trade: Handles international trade disputes and tariffs. This court can be found in New York.
Special Courts Created by Congress
- Magistrate judges: Handle certain criminal and civil matters agreed to by all parties involved.
- Bankruptcy courts: Handles bankruptcy and bankruptcy code and law.
- U.S. Court of Military Appeals: The final appellate court for those that fall under the Military court system.
- U.S. Tax Court: Handles cases involving tax fraud and other tax related issues.
- U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals: Denial of Vet benefits can be taken here (along with other Veterans’ issues).
State Court Systems
All state court systems have some differences, but the similarities are strong enough that we can at least give an overview and general feel for how they all work.
Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Most of the cases that come to one of these courts are overheard by a single judge without a jury.
- Probate court: Handles the estates of those that have died. Makes sure that the will is properly executed.
- Family court: Handles such things as annulments, divorce, custody, child support, alimony, adoption, and other typical family legal issues.
- Traffic court: The typical location that minor traffic incidents are handled.
- Juvenile court: This court handles cases of children who have committed crimes. In some states it is under 18 – others it can be 21.
- Small claims court: Civil matters are handled here and typically involve cases with damages under $ 5,000.
- Municipal court: City ordinance violations are typically handled here.
Trial Courts of General Jurisdiction
These are the main trial courts in the state system.
They can involve both civil and criminal cases.
Typically one judge with a jury hears the cases here.
These courts are usually called one of the following: Circuit courts, Superior courts, Courts of common pleas, and Supreme courts.
Intermediate Appellate Courts
Many states have intermediate courts which fall between the typical trial courts (listed above) and the state Supreme courts (listed below).
In states with these courts this is the first step in the appeals process.
Typically these are a matter of right (meaning the court -must- hear them regardless of their validity).
The only address errors of law and procedural mistakes.
Typically two or three judges review cases in these courts.
Highest State Courts (often state Supreme courts)
All states within the U.S. have some form of High Court.
They are usually called State Supreme Courts, however in some places they are called courts of appeal (Maryland is an example of this).
States that do not have intermediate courts (the type of court listed prior to this) usually allow appeals to this level of court as a matter of right (again, any case will be heard regardless of validity).
Like the intermediate courts, these courts usually hear cases based on error of law and not on facts of the case itself.
These courts tend to be overseen by panels of judges (3,5,7, or 9).
We hope this article has helped to break the Federal and State court systems down into more understandable terms. We wish you luck with your day in court and if you have any questions please ask or contact an attorney.