The Federal Court System of the United States: Definition, Structure & Levels

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  • 0:02 The Federal Court System
  • 1:41 Diversity Jurisdiction
  • 2:58 Federal District Courts
  • 4:54 Federal Appellate Courts
  • 5:58 Supreme Court of the…
  • 7:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

The United States has two separate court systems: the federal and the state. This lesson explores the federal court system of the Unites States, including its structure and jurisdiction.

The Federal Court System

Like the state court systems, the federal court system has three tiers, or levels. The lower level is made up of the district courts. Cases appealed from this level are heard in the circuit courts, and cases appealed from the circuit courts can be heard in the United States Supreme Court.

Unlike state court judges, all federal level judges are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Federal judges hold lifetime positions but can resign, retire or be impeached. Because federal courts have limited jurisdiction, the lower federal courts aren't quite as busy as the state lower courts. Limited jurisdiction means the federal courts may hear only those cases authorized by the United States Constitution. Cases start in the federal court system when they involve:

  • The U.S. Constitution
  • A federal statute
  • A treaty

These cases have original jurisdiction in the federal court system. This means the case can originate, or start, in a lower federal court. For example, let's say that Anna feels she's been discriminated against at work. She wants to file an age discrimination suit against her employer. This is a civil rights issue and is governed by federal law. Anna will, therefore, file her lawsuit in the federal court system.

Diversity Jurisdiction

Sometimes a case can be brought in either a state lower court or in a federal lower court. Cases involving state laws can be filed in the federal court system when the case involves diversity jurisdiction. This generally means the parties are located in different states.

For example, let's say that Anna lives in New York but is driving through New Hampshire on business. Adam runs a red light and hits Anna's car. Anna suffers injuries, and her car is totaled. Anna wants to sue Adam for damages. This case involves diversity jurisdiction. Anna can sue Adam in New Hampshire state court, where the accident occurred and where Adam lives, or she can sue Adam in federal court. If Anna chooses to sue Adam in federal court, New Hampshire state law will be used to decide the case.

Just keep in mind that diversity jurisdiction can only be used in large civil cases involving $75,000 or more in damages. It can't be used for smaller civil cases, and it can't be used for criminal cases.

Federal District Courts

Let's take a look at the lower level of the federal court system. This first level is made up of 94 district courts. These are the lower federal courts serving as both trial courts and appellate courts. Each of the 94 courts serves a specific geographical area of the United States with at least one district in each state. Beyond those 94, there are also federal courts in each district serving only bankruptcy cases.

This level also includes several national specialty courts for particular claims, including:

  • The United States Tax Court, which hears all federal tax claims
  • The United States Court of Federal Claims, which hears all claims against the United States
  • The United States Court of International Trade, which hears all claims involving customs and international trade

When serving as a federal trial court, the district courts have jurisdiction over both federal crimes and federal civil causes of action. Note, however, that these district courts also serve as the first level of appeal for state court cases involving a constitutional issue.

For example, let's say that Anna's employer believes she stole money from the company. Anna is charged and convicted in state court because this is a state crime. The bulk of the state's evidence came from a search of Anna's purse without Anna's permission. Anna believes her 4th Amendment search and seizure rights were violated, and therefore the search results shouldn't have been admitted in the state trial court. Because this is a constitutional issue, Anna will appeal this issue to the federal district court.

Federal Appellate Courts

The middle level of the federal court system is made up of 13 circuit courts. These are the federal courts of appeal. Once a federal district court rules on a case or a federal administrative agency issues a ruling, the case can be appealed to the appropriate federal circuit court. Each of the 13 circuits uses three judges sitting together as a panel. Cases are decided using the majority vote of the panel.

Twelve circuits each serve a specific geographical area of the United States. For example, Anna lives in the Second Circuit, which serves New York, Connecticut and Vermont. The remaining circuit is known as the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. This court has nationwide jurisdiction over very specific issues, such as:

  • Patent cases
  • Cases decided by the Court of International Trade
  • Cases decided by the Court of Federal Claims

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Additional Activities

Prompts About the Federal Court System:

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Make a chart, poster, or other type of graphic organizer that illustrates the three-tiered structure (district courts, circuit courts, Supreme Court of the United States), of the federal court system. Make sure your graphic organizer lists how many of each federal courts there are, and that it briefly describes the function of each type of federal court.

Example: There are 94 district courts, and they hear cases regarding federal tax laws, federal claims against the US, and customs and international trade cases.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 2:

Create a chart, poster, or other type of graphic organizer that shows how federal judges are nominated and how long they can retain their positions.

Example: Because federal judges receive lifetime appointments, they can retain their jobs until they retire or resign, or are impeached.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that answers the following question: Why are lower federal courts not as busy as lower state courts? Consider the roles of limited jurisdiction and original jurisdiction in your answer, being sure to define both.

Example: Limited jurisdiction means that lower federal courts can only hear cases involving a treaty, a federal statute, or the Constitution.

Essay Prompt 2:

In about two to three paragraphs, explain diversity jurisdiction and provide an example of it.

Example: Diversity jurisdiction sets the standards for how civil cases involving multiple parties from different states are handled.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that describes the Supreme Court and the kinds of cases it hears. Be sure to discuss the concepts of writ of certiorari and judicial review in your answer.

Example: A writ of certiorari functions as the request to the Supreme Court to hear a specific case.

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