The US court system is one of the most complex in the world. It is composed of both federal and state court systems, each applying the laws of their jurisdiction. Taken together, there are thousands and thousands of individual courts in the United States! Courts are the final interpreters of law (they apply statutes, regulation and common law) and are therefore central to the legal system. This article provides a brief overview of these various systems.


Federal system

The Federal Court system is created like a three-level pyramid. U.S. District Courts, the majority of courts in the federal system, make up the bottom of the pyramid. These trial courts are the entry point for most cases in the federal system. There are 94 U.S. federal judicial districts each with at least one court. Each state is composed of at least one district but many of the more populated states are made up of multiple districts. New York, for example, is composed of four federal judicial districts (i.e., Eastern, Northern, Southern and Western). U.S. District Courts are “courts of general jurisdiction.” That is, they have the authority to hear a very wide range of cases including both criminal and civil cases.

If a losing party feels that a District Court made an error in reaching a decision, in many circumstances, they can appeal the decision to courts at the mid-level of the pyramid, the U.S. Courts of Appeal. The U.S. Courts of Appeal, often referred to as the U.S. Circuit Courts, are spread over 12 circuits or geographical regions. The U.S. Courts of Appeal hear appeals from District Courts within their regions. Cases at this level are decided by the majority of a three-judge panel. Decisions made by a U.S. Circuit Court will be binding on all District Courts within their jurisdiction through the doctrine of stare decisis and precedence. A party who is dissatisfied with a decision made by a U.S. Court of Appeal may seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court by filing a motion for a writ of certiorari. If the motion is successful, a higher court will then order the lower court to turn over transcripts and documents related to a specific case for review.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the single court at the top of the pyramid. It comprises nine judges, called justices, who decide cases based on a majority. The court’s jurisdiction is largely discretionary. That is, when a writ of certiorari

is filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, requesting that a U.S. Court of Appeal decision be reviewed, the nine justices will decide whether or not they wish to hear the case. If at least four justices agree to hear the case, certiorari is granted and the case is heard. Otherwise, the case is not heard and the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeal stands. The U.S. Supreme Court grants certiorari in only a minority of cases. The decision not to hear a case does not reflect the U.S. Supreme Court’s agreement with the lower level courts. Rather, the Court hears cases that are the most constitutionally or legally important. For example, if many Circuit Courts have interpreted identical statutes differently, the U.S. Supreme Court may agree to hear the case in order to clarify that area of law. Decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court are binding on all other courts in the Federal system. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest arbiter of federal law and as a result it is sometimes called the court of last resort. If a losing party is unhappy with a decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no other option or remedy.

State system

The structure of state court systems varies greatly from state to state. While some states follow a pyramid structure that shares features with the Federal System, many states operate complex systems involving courts with overlapping jurisdiction. Some states systems rely on four levels of courts with (1) courts of limited jurisdiction, (2) courts of general jurisdiction, (3) intermediate appellate courts, and (4) courts of last resort. In these systems a trial will begin either at a court of limited jurisdiction or at a court of general jurisdiction depending on the subject matter and the seriousness of case. Cases heard in a court of limited jurisdiction can often be appealed to a court of general jurisdiction. Cases first heard in a court of general jurisdiction can usually be appealed either to the intermediate appellate court or to the court of last resort depending on the nature and seriousness of the case. While this system may seem overly complex, many states systems are much more elaborate and convoluted. Those who are interested in learning about the state court system in their jurisdiction should consult their state government website for additional information.

Excerpted from: Roesch, R., Zapf, P. A., & Hart, S. D. (2010). Forensic psychology and law. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.