The 3 Levels of the Federal Court System: Structure and Organization

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  • 0:06 Historical Overview
  • 1:32 U.S. District Court
  • 3:20 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
  • 5:16 U.S. Supreme Court
  • 7:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

The federal court system has three main levels: U.S. District Court, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. Each level of court serves a different legal function for both civil and criminal cases.

Historical Overview

Let's take an historical journey back in time to learn how the federal court system began. Many years ago, state courts heard legal matters of its citizens. Jurisdiction was defined geographically.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard cases of national attention, and that was only after one of the parties involved in a case felt that their rights had been violated as a matter of law in the state court. In other words, the Supreme Court was considered an appellate court.

As time went on and a young country began to develop and expand, cases involving matters outside of states (and even between states) required a more impartial system of trying a case.

In 1789, a new congress assembled to debate the need for a separate court - a higher court, whose purpose would be to try cases that test constitutional rights. Up for debate was Senate Bill 1 (1789) that posed the question: Should federal claims be first tried in state court? The answer was: yes and no.

Opinions argued by some believed that federal law should be arbitrated in state court first and only move to Supreme Court in cases of appeal. Others argued, out of fear, that litigants from out of state (or even the nation) would not receive a fair trial, and therefore they wanted to create a lower federal court. Two lower courts were then formed, creating three levels of federal court.

U.S. District Court

The U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over cases involving both civil and criminal actions. Civil actions must arise out of a violation of one's constitutional rights, a violation of law or treaties of the United States or if the United States is party to the suit. Civil maritime cases and cases involving citizens of different states are also heard in district courts.

In criminal cases, jurisdiction to hear a case occurs only if the Unites States if party to the suit or when prosecution is brought on by the United States. Whether it is a civil or a criminal case, a judge determines issues of law and a jury (or a judge) determines findings of facts.

There are 94 U.S. District Courts, with at least one in every state. Each contains 2-28 judges. There is no appellate jurisdiction, meaning this court has no power to hear an appeal from a lower court.

United States v. Jose Hernandez

Let's analyze an example of a case brought to U.S. District Court. U.S. v. Jose Hernandez was tried in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, in Miami, Florida because the United States was a party to the suit. The United States claimed that Hernandez borrowed several thousands of dollars in educational loans and did not repay the debts.

The United States filed a motion for summary judgment, meaning a summarized version of a case heard by a judge based only on the merit of a case or a discrete fact.

The United States sought to recover monies owed to the Department of Education and federal Treasury as a result of Hernandez's default on several federally-funded student loans.

The motion was granted to the plaintiff, the United States, making the defendant Hernandez liable to repay the monies borrowed with interest.

U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals resides over cases in where one or both parties are dissatisfied with the judgment in U.S. District Court. The lower court ruling is reviewed by a panel of three judges to determine whether there was an issue with the application of law. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears both civil and criminal cases.

There are 13 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the United States and is considered one of the most powerful courts. In the country, there are 179 full-time circuit judges in all, but only three judges hear a single case. Because this court hears appeals from the lower court, the judges' decisions often set legal precedent.

Bette Midler v. Ford Motor Company

Let's analyze a case brought up from U.S. District Court for appeal.

In Bette Midler v. Ford Motor Company, Midler originally sued Ford Motor Company in the U.S. District Court, alleging that Ford Motor Company used a 'sound-alike' to sing one of her popular songs for an ad campaign aimed at attracting nostalgic baby boomers to identify with the song and thereby purchase a Ford vehicle.

In the lower court, it was decided that the media was protected under First Amendment rights. Further, the use of the voice likeness is the issue. If the voice likeness was used as informational or for cultural value, it is permissible. If it is for a different purpose, it is not.

Midler appealed the decision of the lower court, arguing that Ford Motor Company used her voice likeness as a means to profit from auto sales. While no new evidence is brought to light in appellate court, a closer look at the application of law and constitutional rights are reviewed.

In the case of Midler v. Ford Motor Company, the lower court's decision was remanded and sent back for re-trial. This means Midler won her case in appellate court, and it was returned to the lower court to be re-tried.

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in a state or in the United States and generally only deals with matters of state or national importance or appeals from the appellate court. This court will take cases from appellate court only if there is an issue with the interpretation of the law or with a constitutional right. It is also the last step in the appeals process. There is no appeals process if either party is not satisfied with the decision.

There are nine judges or justices that decide on cases. In order to have a case brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, one must file a writ of certiorari requesting the court to hear a case. The court generally hears between 100-150 cases of the 7,000 requests made per year. Let's analyze a case brought up from the U.S. Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court for judgment.

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