Federal Court Structure
 
The structure of the federal court system has varied a great deal throughout the history of the nation. The Constitution merely provides that the judicial power of the United States "be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

The District Courts

The United States district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Each district includes a United States bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court. Three territories of the United States - the Virgin Islands Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands - have district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases.

United States Court of Federal Claims and International Trade


There are two special trial courts that have nationwide jurisdiction over certain types of cases. The Court of International Trade addresses cases involving international trade and customs issues. The United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, unlawful "takings" of private property by the federal government, and a variety of other claims against the United States.


The Circuit Courts


The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. A court of appeals hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

The United States Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judiciary. Congress has established two levels of federal courts under the Supreme Court: the trial courts and the appellate courts.

The United States Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices. At its discretion, and within certain guidelines established by Congress, the Supreme Court each year hears a limited number of the cases it is asked to decide. Those cases may begin in the federal or state courts, and they usually involve important questions about the Constitution or federal law.

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