Federal and State Courts in the United States
Because of federalism, which provides power to both the federal and state governments, there are federal and state court systems in the United States. For example, if you took a walk in New York City you could see federal and state courts in lower Manhattan standing side-by-side. But although these courts may be geographically close to each other, state courts and federal courts are separate and independent. This short introduction will help you understand both court systems.
The Federal Court System
Establishing Federal Courts
The Constitution establishes the highest federal court in the United States, the Supreme Court of the United States.
But within the federal court system there are so-called inferior courts, including trial level and intermediate level appellate courts.
Article III Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States grants Congress the power to establish these inferior federal courts.
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
US Constitution Art. III § 1
Tiered Structure of the Federal Courts
Federal courts are organized in a tiered structure, with trial level courts called United States District Courts and intermediate level appellate courts called United States Circuit Courts of Appeals. The highest federal court in the United States is the Supreme Court.
The United States District Courts
Located within each state is at least one federal judicial district. A United States District Court is responsible for each judicial district.
States with smaller populations have just one judicial district while states with larger populations have more judicial districts.
For example, New Jersey has only one federal judicial district. The federal trial level court in in New Jersey is called the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.
New York has four judicial districts, the Southern, Eastern, Northern, and Western districts. The Southern District is located in Manhattan. The full name of this court is the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The United States Circuit Courts
United States Circuit Courts of Appeals are the intermediate appellate level courts of the federal court system. There are eleven Circuit Courts organized by geography. In addition to these eleven Circuit Courts there is also a twelfth Circuit Court that hears appeals from the United States District Court located in Washington, D.C.
By way of example, United States District Courts in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont are grouped together in the Second Circuit. Appeals from these courts are directed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. (Look at a diagram)
One additional Circuit Court is called the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit Court hears appeals from special types of cases. These cases include patent cases from the District Courts, appeals from the United States Court of International Trade, and appeals from the United States Court of Federal Claims.
The diagram on the rights shows Circuit Courts organized by geography. Notice, for example, how Connecticut, New York, and Vermont are part of the Second Circuit. On the other side of the country, California and other states are in the Ninth Circuit. Appeals from a United States District Court in New York will go to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals while an appeal from a United States District Court located in California will go to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Appeals from federal courts in New York go to the Second Circuit
Appeals from federal courts in California go to the Ninth Circuit.
State Court Systems
Organizing State Courts
Just as federal courts are organized in a tiered structure, so are state courts. All state court systems have a trial level court, most state court systems have an intermediate level court, and all state court systems have a court of last resort – – the highest court in the state.
Watch out for Different Names
State courts can be a bit tricky because different states will often have different names for their courts. For example, New York’s trial level court is called New York Supreme Court. The state’s intermediate appellate level courts are part of the Supreme Court so these courts are called the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. New York’s highest court is the Court of Appeals.
Other states call their trial courts “Superior Courts” and the highest court will be called the Supreme Court.
Many states also have specialized courts. For example, New York’s commercial division has jurisdiction to hear business disputes. If the case is in New York City the amount in dispute must be at least $500,000.
States may also have special courts for disputes over small amounts of money, disputes between landlords and tenants, and for tax cases.
New York’s major courts