Federal Courts

The Supreme Court is the highest court within the federal judiciary. It is the only court that was established by the Constitution. Congress can only determine its composition and jurisdiction. The Court reviews federal appeals and state appeals that bear on a federal issue.

Supreme Court Glossary (Jane Ginsburg, Legal Methods )

  • All Supreme Court judges are called justices.
  • Since 1868, the Court has consisted of nine justices: one “Chief Justice of the United States,” and eight associate justices.
  • The number of justices has varied: the Court had as few as five and as many as ten.
  • The Supreme Court reviews cases as a matter of right and of discretion. However, in practice, the Supreme Court reviews cases as a matter of discretion, by granting a writ of certiorari. Certiorari means “bring up the record.”
  • In 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed 2,210 petitions for a writ of certiorari (requests for review) and granted 82, less than 4 percent. These statistics have remained dismissal through the new century.

Diagram of court system

As shown above, the Circuit Courts of Appeals are a step below, and their establishment is provided both by the Constitution and later congressional statutes. Theoretically, federal appellate decisions can be further appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,16 but due to the limited number of certiorari the Supreme Court grants every year, an appellate ruling represents the final decision in most cases.

There are 12 regional circuits. They are organized geographically so that each circuit court of appeals serves more than one state. Each circuit has a court of appeals.

For example, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit serves three states: Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. Thus, New York is covered by the second regional circuit, and its intermediary court is called the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
In addition there are specialized courts that can hear only appeals in specialized cases. For example, the Federal Circuit Court handles appeals that involve patents as well as appeals from the Claims Court and the Court of International Trade.

A court of appeals hears appeals from both the district courts located within its circuit, and from decisions of federal administrative agencies.18 For example, the appeals of the federal administrative agency called The National Labor Review Board (NLRB), will be heard either by the court of appeals of the place of the violation or that of the place of the NLRB’s headquarters.

Each court of appeals covers one or more district courts. The district courts are the lowest level of federal courts. There are 94 federal judicial districts. Each state, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, is covered by at least one federal district. Three territories of the United States-the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands-have district courts that hear federal cases as well.19 There are four district courts that cover New York. The federal district court that covers Manhattan is called the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The district courts are courts of general jurisdiction that can hear all cases under the federal Constitution or a federal statute and controversies between citizens of different states. They are not restricted by law to hear only disputes limited to a specific subject matter. District (trial) courts are the place where a lawsuit is brought and tried. Aggrieved individuals (persons or corporations) file their complaints there, explaining both the factual and legal issues that entitle them to relief from the courts. The party against the lawsuit, the defendant, attempts to contradict the plaintiff’s narrative.

The defendant joins the plaintiff in court and presents evidence to persuade the fact finder, either the jury or the judge, about the factual issues at hand in the lawsuit. Upon hearing the evidence and the arguments made by each party’s lawyer, the jury finds in favor of one of the parties, according to the instructions about the applicable law given by the judge.

District court decisions are open to changes in appeal. The appeal stage may involve two levels of scrutiny: one from an intermediary court and another from the court of last resort. At the federal level, the court of last resort is the Supreme Court. However, unlike in civil law countries, the appeal in the American legal system involves only a review of the law and not of the facts. Thus, the district court has the last word in factual matters. Additionally, in light of the very small number of appellate courts, it is obvious that only a small percent of the district court decisions are appealed. Thus, the reality is that often district courts hold the last word in questions of law as well. Courts make law through
the decisions they issue as part of well-argued opinions. As discussed in this wiki opinions have a rigorous structure and through exercise one can identify their ruling. Usually federal case law designates the decisions that benefit of precedential value and come from appellate courts and the court of last resort.

However, although depleted of precedential value, district court decisions, when not appealed, constitute the final law in a case and thus are worth recording and researching.

According to the level of the court that issues them, decisions differ in their authority to dictate future courts to follow the same decision in similar factual contexts. Their authority –or precedential value- varies according to the doctrine of stare decisis. In legal research this doctrine translates into the mandate of making sure that you always update your research results.

Most court opinions are published either in paper, in court reporters, or online, in digital repositories. Reporters are available both online and in print.

Federal court opinions are collected in federal reporters, which remain a West-publishing monopoly to a large degree.