The federal court system has three levels. The first level is the federal district
courts. Most lawsuits brought in the federal system start in the district court
(although some go directly from state courts to the U.S. Supreme Court). There
are several hundred district courts spread among 94 districts. In general, the
case must be brought in the district court that is geographically related to the
defendant or where the incident occurred. The choice of court is not a neutral
decision. Districts differ in the way the judges apply the law and the willingness
of their juries to award damages.
The second level is the federal courts of appeals. As the name suggests, those
who believe that the district court has misapplied the law or abused its
discretion in the handling of their case appeal to these courts. District courts
are grouped together into 13 circuits, each with several judges who sit in
panels of three, or en banc (all together) to hear the cases appealed from the
district courts within the circuit. The appeals courts within a circuit attempt to
apply the law consistently within their circuit. Although they try to maintain
consistency with the other circuits, they are bound only by the Congress and by
the U.S. Supreme Court, not the holding of the other circuits.
The third level is the U.S. Supreme Court. Some types of cases may be brought
directly in the Supreme Court, but most travel from the federal district court
through a circuit court of appeals, to the Supreme Court or from a state
supreme court to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has four primary
roles: determining if acts of the U.S. Congress are constitutional; reviewing
state laws and court decisions for conflicts with the Constitution and acts of
Congress; adjudicating conflicts between the states; and resolving conflicts
between the federal circuit courts of appeals. The Supreme Court reviews only
laws or court decisions that are contested in a court. It does not provide
advisory opinions on the constitutionality of proposed state or federal laws.
Even with this limited scope of review, the Supreme Court can decide only a
small percentage of the cases that are presented to it each year. Its decision
not to review a case, which allows the lower court’s decision to stand,
influences precedent nearly as much as the cases in which it issues an opinion.
For this reason, the Supreme Court devotes substantial resources to sorting
through the thousands of appeals cases presented each year.
Not every case may be brought in federal court. The case must involve federal
statutes or regulations, constitutional rights, suits between states, or suits
between citizens of different states. Medical malpractice cases are usually tried
in state court unless one of the defendants is an employee of the federal
government or the parties live in different states. Cases involving constitutional
issues such as the right of privacy are brought in the federal courts. Cases
involving antitrust law, racketeering law, and Medicare/Medicaid laws are
brought in the federal courts because these are federal laws. A case originally
brought in federal court may be sent back to the state court if the judge
determines that it does not involve a federal issue. Alternatively, a case filed in
state court may be sent (removed) to federal court if substantial federal
questions arise as the case proceeds.