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2.1: Introduction to Federal and State Court Systems


Learn more about federal and state court systems in the United States


  1. Read the essay on federal and state court systems
  2. Answer the questions

Federal and State Courts

We can say that the United States has more than 50 different legal systems because each of the 50 states, as well as the federal government, has a constitution, statutes, and its own courts.  

That is why in the United States you can see both state and federal courts standing virtually side-by-side but operating independently of each other.  Soon we will learn which types of cases may be brought in federal court and which cases belong in state court.  But for now, let’s look at the structure of federal and state courts in the United States. 

Federal Court Systems

Article III of the United States Constitution established the United States Supreme Court.  People refer to the Supreme Court as the “highest court”, or the ‘court of last resort’  in the United States because it has the highest appellate jurisdiction in the federal court system.   

Article III also authorizes the Congress of the United States to create inferior federal courts (courts below the Supreme Court).  You might hear U.S. lawyers refer to federal courts and federal judges as Article III courts and judges.  

Federal courts are tiered, as shown in the following diagram:

United States district courts are the trial level courts in the federal court system.  Congress established at least one federal judicial district in each state, and some states have several federal districts.  For example, Rhode Island has just one federal district court but New York State, which is significantly larger, has four federal district courts: one for the Southern, Northern, Eastern, and Western districts of New York.  

Congress also established 13 Circuit Courts of Appeals, known as the Circuit Courts.  The First through the Eleventh Circuits are organized geographically.  For example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from the United States district courts on Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from United States district courts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

There are two additional Circuit Courts of Appeals.  First, there is a federal appellate court for Washington, D.C., called the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.   Second, Congress established the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over special types of cases, such as government contracts and patents.

Most federal courts are organized by geography in Circuits.  For example, New York is in in the Second Circuit.

When a party appeals from a decision of a federal district court, the appeal will be heard by one of the Circuit Courts.  The Supreme Court of the United States has discretion to hear appeals from the Circuit Courts.

For example, let’s say a party loses a case in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.  New York is in the Second Circuit, therefore, the losing party will appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  If the appellant is not successful in the Second Circuit, then the party could try to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court grants certiorari – – agrees to hear on appeal – -in a very limited number of appeals.  

Watch a video on federal and state courts:

State Court Systems

State courts are tiered in a manner similar to federal courts.  Each state has a trial level court, most have an intermediate level appellate court, and all states have a highest court.   The highest court is usually, but not always, called the state supreme court.  

States also typically have specialized courts that deal with claims where the amount in dispute is very low.   Some states also have specialized courts to deal with complex business matters.

One point to remember is that the names of state courts are different from state to state.  For example, the trial level courts in Connecticut are called “superior courts” but in Florida, they are called “circuit courts.”  The names do not matter for purposes of understanding the tiered structure reflected in the following figure.

Answer the Questions