What is the Federal Court?

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Researcher: Ariana Arce​


Picture of Journalist: Aaron Vivanco

Journalist: Aaron Vivanco


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Editor: Daniela Polo


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What is the Federal Court?

The Federal court plays a key role in the justice system of the United States of America. It takes care of specific actions that involve the U.S. Constitution, treaties, federal laws and statutes1, as well as certain controversies between states, among other issues expressly authorized. 

Understanding how federal courts work may be challenging because they are part of a much larger and complex system. Read on to learn how the federal court system works, its differences from the state court system, and other important details.

How Does The Federal Court Work

The federal court is a system with many important pieces that work together and complies with specific tasks. This system is comprised of lower courts such as district and circuit courts, and the highest court. In total, there are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court. 

District courts are called trial courts and circuit courts are responsible for the first level of appeal. The final level contains the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS), which is the cornerstone of the entire federal court system and a final arbiter for federal questions.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court of the U.S. justice system, ruled by nine2 “Justices” or judges who are nominated by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate, and hold office under life tenure. 

Sitting below, there are 13 circuit courts, also called “appellate courts”, which hear appeals coming from the district courts.  

The 94 district or trial courts (organized into 12 regional circuits)are the main door through which federal cases enter the system. These courts are located in each state and handle cases within the federal court system. 

One Illustrative Example

Let’s say someone in the state of Oregon believes that their constitutional rights have been infringed by a law that this state has passed. Said person can file a lawsuit against the state in a district court in Oregon, alleging that such law is unconstitutional.
The judge assigned to the case makes a decision based on both the plaintiff’s and the defendant’s arguments. The plaintiff or defendant could disagree with the district court’s decision and proceed with the next link in the federal court system: the appeal or circuit court.
The same happens if, after this new decision the plaintiff or defendant is still dissatisfied with the outcome. Then the next stage is to turn to the Supreme Court, although at this level this court could choose not to hear the case.
If SCOTUS does hear it, then the case should be presented before the nine Supreme Court Justices. This decision is final and should be accepted by the lower courts.

What is the Difference Between Federal Courts and State Courts

Although they may seem similar, federal and state courts are not the same. The first and most evident distinction is that they both operate in different jurisdictions, depending on what type of cases-state or federal- they are ruling on.
Federal courts hear cases that involve federal statutes, treaties, and/or the United States Constitution, while state courts hear most criminal and contract cases.
Sometimes, the jurisdiction of state courts can overlap with that of federal courts. In these circumstances, the case can be brought in both courts.
Also, a case that was initially brought in state law can be “removed” to the federal courts. Nevertheless, the process is much more complex and there are specific requirements to authorize this type of action.
Both are organized differently too. Federal courts are hierarchical, with the Supreme Court working at the top of the system, holding it all together, and all 13 circuit courts and 94 trial courts at the base. On the other hand, state courts have their own structure (a court of last resort, sometimes an appeal court and state trial courts), which depends on the statutes and laws of each state.
The way judges make their way to each court is different as well. While federal judges are nominated by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate, State judges are either elected or appointed (for a given number of years or lifetime). Federal judges can retain their offices for life unless they are removed by impeachment or decide to retire or resign.
If you don’t know if your case belongs to a federal or state court, contact us for a free consultation.

How are Supreme Court Justices Appointed?

As explained above, the Supreme Court is the center of the U.S. federal court system, and the selection of federal judges is up to the President and the Senate. The appointment process has a series of steps which ensure that the people chosen are adequate for the role. These steps are:

1. Nomination By The President

The President of the United States nominates a candidate for the Supreme Court, taking into account the opinions of advisors, legal experts, and relevant stakeholders to make a decision. This nomination can occur only if a vacancy arises because the previous Justice resigned, voluntarily retired, or was impeached by the House of Representatives. 

2. Review Of The Senate Judiciary Committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee reviews the nominee’s background and judicial character. They may even hold hearings to interview the nominee about these issues. Although there are no specific qualifications to be nominated as a Supreme Court Justice, historically they have been professionals who worked as lawyers and/or judges. 

3. Senate’s Vote Of Confirmation

When the mentioned review is completed, the majority of the Senate has to confirm the nominee to become a Supreme Court judge.


  1.  A violation of federal statute does not create federal cause of action unless it also provides a remedy for such case.
  2. The Constitution does not stipulate the number of Justices; such is set instead by Congress. Since 1869 there have been nine.
  3. SCOTUS authority to review a case is discretionary. It should only agree to review a case if there is a compelling reason (e.g. national interest).