Hierarchy of Courts & Justice Systems in USA

This article is written by Amitabh Ghosh, pursuing M.A. Business Laws from NUJS, Kolkata. The article describes the Hierarchy of Courts & Justice System in the USA.

Hierarchy of Courts in The USA

The hierarchy of courts in the USA is mainly divided into 3 parts.

The constitution of the USA is Federal in nature. The Federal courts systems are classified in main three levels which are depicted below-

  1. District courts (the trial court)
  2. Circuit courts which are the first level of appeal (Courts of Appeals)
  3. The Supreme Court of the United States, the final level of appeal in the federal system
  • Courts in the federal system work differently in many ways than state courts. The primary difference for civil cases as opposed to criminal cases is the types of cases that can be heard in the federal system.
  • Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes.
  • The federal district court is the starting point for any case arising under federal statutes, the Constitution, or treaties. This type of jurisdiction is called “original jurisdiction.”

The jurisdiction of state courts will overlap with that of federal courts, meaning that some cases can be brought in both courts. The plaintiff has the initial choice of bringing the case in state or federal court. However, if the plaintiff chooses state court, the defendant may opt to choose to “remove” to federal court.

  • Cases that are entirely based on state law may be brought in federal court under the court’s “diversity jurisdiction”. Diversity jurisdiction allows a plaintiff of one state to file a lawsuit in federal court when the defendant is located in a different state. The defendant can also seek to “remove” from the state court for the same reason.
  • To bring a state law claim in federal court, all of the plaintiffs must be located in different states than all of the defendants, and the “amount in controversymust be more than $75,000/-.
  • Criminal cases may not be brought under diversity jurisdiction. States may only bring criminal prosecutions in state courts, and the federal government may only bring criminal prosecutions in federal court.
  • The principle of double jeopardy, which does not allow a defendant to be tried twice for the same charge, does not apply between the federal and state government. If the state brings a murder charge and does not get a conviction, it is possible for the federal government in some cases to file charges against the defendant if the act is also illegal under federal law.
  • Federal judges and Supreme Court “justices” are selected by the President and confirmed “with the advice and consent” of the Senate and “shall hold their Offices during good behavior.”
    Judges may hold their position for the rest of their lives, but many resign or retire earlier. They may also be removed by impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate.

District Courts

  • The district courts are the general trial courts of the federal court system. Each district court has at least one United States District Judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term.
  • District courts handle trials within the federal court system, both civil and criminal. The districts are the same as those for the U.S. Attorneys, and the U.S. Attorney is the primary prosecutor for the federal government in his or her respective area.
  • District court judges are responsible for managing the court and supervising the court’s employees. They are able to continue to serve so long as they maintain “good behavior” and they can be impeached and removed by Congress.

Certain tasks of the district court are given to federal magistrate judges. Magistrates are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges and serve for a term of eight years, if full-time, and four years, if part-time, but they can be reappointed after completion of their term.

  • In criminal matters, magistrate judges may oversee certain cases, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, conduct the initial hearings, set bail, decide certain motions (such as a motion to suppress evidence), and other similar actions.
  • In civil cases, magistrates often handle a variety of issues such as pre-trial motions and discovery.
  • Federal trial courts have also been established for a few subject-specific areas. Each federal district also has a bankruptcy court for those proceedings. Additionally, some courts have nationwide jurisdiction for issues such as tax (United States Tax Court), claims against the federal government (United States Court of Federal Claims), and international trade (United States Court of International Trade).

Circuit Courts

Once the federal district court has decided a case, the case can be appealed to a United States court of appeal. There are twelve federal circuits that divide the country into different regions. The Fifth Circuit, for example, includes the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Cases from the district courts of those states are appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. Additionally, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a nationwide jurisdiction over very specific issues such as patents.

Each circuit court has multiple judges, ranging from six on the First Circuit to twenty-nine on the Ninth Circuit. Circuit court judges are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Any case may be appealed to the circuit court once the district court has finalized a decision. (some issues can be appealed before a final decision by making an “interlocutory appeal”)

Appeals to circuit courts are first heard by a panel, consisting of three circuit court judges. Parties file “briefs” to the court, arguing why the trial court’s decision should be “affirmed” or “reversed.” After the briefs are filed, the court will schedule “oral argument” in which the lawyers come before the court to make their arguments and answer the judges’ questions.

Though it is rare, the entire circuit court may consider certain appeals in a process called an “en banc hearing.” (The Ninth Circuit has a different process for en banc than the rest of the circuits.)

En banc opinions tend to carry more weight and are usually decided only after a panel has first heard the case. Once a panel has ruled on an issue and “published” the opinion, no future panel can overrule the previous decision. The panel can, however, suggest that the circuit take up the case en banc to reconsider the first panel’s decision.

Beyond the Federal Circuit, a few courts have been established to deal with appeals on specific subjects such as veterans claims (United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims) and military matters (United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces).

Supreme Court of the USA

The Supreme Court of the USA is the highest court in the American judicial system and has the power to decide appeals on all cases brought in federal court or those brought in state court but dealing with federal law.

For example, if a First Amendment freedom of speech case was decided by the highest court of a state (the state supreme court), the case could be appealed to the federal Supreme Court. However, if that same case were decided entirely on a state law similar to the First Amendment, the Supreme Court of the United States would not be able to consider the case.

After the circuit court or state Supreme court has ruled on a case, either party may choose to appeal to the Supreme Court. Unlike circuit court appeals, however, the Supreme Court is usually not required to hear the appeal. Parties may file a “writ of certiorari” to the court, asking it to hear the case.

If the writ is granted, the Supreme Court will take briefs and conduct oral argument.
If the writ is not granted, the lower court’s opinion stands. Certiorari is not often granted; less than 1% of appeals to the high court are actually heard by it. The Court typically hears cases when there are conflicting decisions across the country on a particular issue or when there is an egregious error in a case.

The members of the Court are referred to as “justices” and like other federal judges, they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term.

There are nine justices on the court – eight associate justices and one chief justice. The Constitution sets no requirements for Supreme Court justices, though all current members of the court are lawyers and most have served as circuit court judges. Justices are also often former law professors. The chief justice acts as the administrator of the court and is chosen by the President and approved by the Congress when the position is vacant.

Sources of Law in The USA

In the USA, the law is derived from five sources –

  1. Constitutional law
  2.  Statutory law
  3. Treaties
  4.  Administrative regulations
  5.  The Common Law



Congress enacts a statute that conflicts with the Constitution and the Supreme Court find that law which is unconstitutional and declare it invalid.

Levels of Law:

  • Federal law

Federal law originates with the Constitution which gives Congress the power to enact statutes for certain limited purposes like regulating interstate commerce. The USA Code is the official compilation and codification of the general and permanent federal statutes.

Many statutes give executive branch agencies the power to create regulations which are published in the Federal Register and codified into the Code of Federal Regulations. Regulations generally also carry the force of law under the Chevron doctrine. Many lawsuits turn on the meaning of a federal statute or regulation, and judicial interpretations of such meaning carry legal force under the principle of stare decisis.

  • Statutes

After the President signs a bill into law (or Congress enacts it over his veto), it is delivered to the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) where it is assigned a law number and prepared for publication as a slip law.

Public laws, but not private laws, are also given legal statutory citation by the OFR.

At the end of each session of Congress, the slip laws are compiled into bound volumes called the United States Statutes at Large, and they are known as session laws.

Public laws are incorporated into the United States Code, which is a codification of all general and permanent laws of the United States. The main edition is published every six years by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the House of Representatives and cumulative supplements are published annually.

The U.S. Code is arranged by subject matter and it shows the present status of laws (with amendments already incorporated in the text) that have been amended on one or more occasions.

  • Regulations

Congress often enacts statutes that grant broad rule making authority to federal agencies. Often, Congress is simply too gridlocked to draft detailed statutes that explain how the agency should react to every possible situation, or Congress believes the agency’s technical specialists are best equipped to deal with particular fact situations as they arise. Therefore, federal agencies are authorized to promulgate regulations.

Under the principle of Chevron deference, regulations normally carry the force of law as long as they are based on a reasonable interpretation of the relevant statutes.

Regulations are adopted pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act. Regulations are first proposed and published in the Federal Register (FR or Fed. Reg.) and subject to a public comment period. Eventually, after a period for public comment and revisions based on comments received, a final version is published in the Federal Register. The regulations are codified and incorporated into the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) which is published once a year on a rolling schedule.

Besides regulations formally promulgated under the APA, federal agencies also frequently promulgate an enormous amount of forms, manuals, policy statements, letters, and rulings. These documents may be considered by a court as persuasive authority as to how a particular statute or regulation may be interpreted (known as Skidmore deference), but are not entitled to Chevron deference.

State law

The fifty American states are separate sovereigns, with their own state constitutions, state governments, and state courts.

All states have a legislative branch which enacts state statutes, an executive branch that promulgates state regulations pursuant to statutory authorization and a judicial branch that applies, interprets, and occasionally overturns both state statutes and regulations, as well as local ordinances.

They retain plenary power to make laws covering anything not pre-empted by the federal Constitution, federal statutes, or international treaties ratified by the federal Senate. Normally, state supreme courts are the final interpreters of state constitutions and state law, unless their interpretation itself presents a federal issue, in which case a decision may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by way of a petition for writ of certiorari.

State laws have dramatically diverged in the centuries since independence, to the extent that the United States cannot be regarded as one legal system as to the majority of types of law traditionally under state control but must be regarded as 50 separate systems of tort law, family law, property law, contract law, criminal law, and so on.

That’s all about Justice system & Hierarchy of Courts in the USA. Did the post add value to your knowledge about the Justice system in the USA? Comment below & Share the article.




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