Federal Courts And The Federal Appeals Process

Basics of the Federal Court System

In the United States, the Federal Courts are part of a three-tier system. Federal trials are held in one of the 94 United States District Courts. Each of these courts falls within one of twelve circuits, each with a Circuit Court of Appeals at its head. And above these courts sits the United States Supreme Court, the final arbiter of American law.

Original Jurisdiction: Why cases start in a lower court.

An important concept when understanding the Federal Courts is original jurisdiction. This is the court that must hear a case first before it can move to appeal. Under the legal principle of dual sovereignty, the United States Federal Government and the various state governments both have their own sets of laws.

If the matter at hand involves a state’s law, it has to be heard through the state courts. Murders, rapes, and robberies are usually matters of state law.

If the matter involves federal law, the case has to start in a United States District Court. Bankruptcies start here, as do most crimes involving bank robbery, drug distribution, and securities fraud.

Some crimes can be tried in both federal and state court. In such cases, prosecutors at both levels are allowed to bring their own relevant cases against the defendant.


Isn’t that double jeopardy?

A lot of people are under the misconception that double jeopardy protects them from facing State and Federal charges over the same accusation. This isn’t true. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can charge someone twice for the same crime, but they are both free to bring separate charges over one alleged incident.

What Federal Court has jurisdiction over a case?

Jurisdiction of Federal District Courts

This question can usually be answered with a map. In most cases, the Federal Court District with jurisdiction over the part of the country where the crime was alleged to occur will be the one to hear the case. The only major exception are patent law cases, which have their own dedicated court district not tied to geographic boundaries. The US Court of International Trade is also considered an independent district and handles cases relating to import duties, tariffs, and maritime law.


Jurisdiction of the US Court of Appeals.

There are 13 federal appeals courts. Each of these exclusively hears cases from several of the 94 federal district courts. They never hear cases from state courts.. Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey fall within the 3rd District Federal Court of Appeals. Other states and their districts can be found on this map of the US Court of Appeals.

Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States

When cases have exhausted their appeals at the State or Federal level, a petition can be sent for the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction includes all 50 US States, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia. Most people think of the Supreme Court as the ultimate appeals court, but it actually has original jurisdiction over a small set of cases. When states are in dispute over the law, they can take their case directly to the Supreme Court. These motions are rare, and it’s even rarer for the court to grant them review. The Supreme Court has only handled a few hundred such cases in its nearly 230-year history.

How Do Federal Appeals Work?

After a Federal District Court finds a defendant guilty, they are entitled to appeal the case. An appeal is not a new trial. Instead, it is a challenge to how the lower court applied the law at trial.


The defendant’s lawyer will prepare and file a notice of appeal which triggers the appellate process.  After a briefing schedule is ordered by the federal appeals court, a legal document called a brief will be prepared and filed by your lawyer.  This is the most crucial part of the appeals process because it requires a particular skill set suitable to research and persuasive writing in order to be done effectively. Sometimes, the appeals court will hold oral arguments for both sides to present their arguments to the panel of judges in person as a supplement to their briefs. These are short, structured discussions where the judge and lawyers on both sides will present their legal reasoning. The decision of this hearing is usually the final word in the matter. There are two exceptions where the Federal Court of Appeals decision itself can be challenged.


If the court’s decision is in conflict with legal precedent or with another Circuit’s decision in a similar case, counsel may request an en banc review where a larger panel of judges will review the case. This is a rare action reserved for extraordinary legal dilemmas or controversial social issues that have found their way into a courtroom.


After the appeals process, either party can write a petition to the Supreme Court to review the case. There is no inherent right to Supreme Court review. The Supreme Court carefully reviews all petitions and formally grants a writ of certiorari in those cases it decides to consider. The Supreme Court is not simply another appeal. The decision it reaches in any given case is a precedent, a standard for interpreting a matter of law. All courts in the United States will be bound to follow the Supreme Court’s interpretation in future cases, not just in the matter under appeal. This extreme power is flexed sparingly. From same-sex marriage to gun ownership, the Supreme Court’s final ruling becomes the law of the land.


How a case moves through the Federal Courts

To explore how the Federal Courts handle a case, let’s explore the legal path of a landmark Supreme Court case that began in district court: Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.


Yaser Hamdi was an American citizen seized by the United States military in Afghanistan. He was sent without trial to Guantanamo Bay, then to a military prison in Virginia. When his father learned that his son was being in held in prison without a trial, and with no charges filed, he petitioned the Eastern District of Virginia to review the detention of his son.


The Eastern District struggled with difficult questions about military bureaucracy and the Secretary of Defense’s declaration that as an enemy combatant Yaser Hamdi had lost his fifth amendment rights. The Eastern District demanded that the military needed to release materials as evidence for the court to rule on Mr. Hamdi’s rights. This motion was appealed by the Federal Government and the case was elevated to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.


The Fourth Circuit of Appeals sided with the Executive Branch,  specifically Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They ruled that it was up to the military to decide on Mr. Hamdi’s status as a citizen or an enemy combatant.


Hamdi’s lawyers immediately filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court. This petition was granted, and oral arguments began before the Justices in April of 2004. After nearly two months of deliberation, the Justices sided with Mr. Hamdi and upheld his protections through the Bill of Rights. Voting 8-1, they maintained that even as an alleged enemy combatant, Hamdi (and by extension any American citizens captured in a war zone) had rights guaranteed by the Constitution.


This case is a landmark decision in its own right. The simple facts of the case and a clear path from the case’s original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court serve as an easily understandable case study of the interlocking roles of the Federal Courts and how an appeal is used to protect Americans’ civil rights.