01 02 03 Law Library: Federal Court System Have You Stumped? 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Federal Court System Have You Stumped?

The Federal Court System can be just as confusing as the State systems (see our post on the FL State System here), but hopefully this post will help clarify the basics.  

"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." U.S. Const. Art. III  Based on this power, Congress has established the current Federal court system: the District Courts; the Circuit Courts of Appeals; and the Supreme Court.  In addition, there are a few more subject-specific courts established, such as Bankruptcy Court and the Martial court system.  For more information, see the Court Roles and Structure.

Please keep in mind that the terminology, while similar to the State system, differs somewhat in relation to the level of authority denoted.  Both the Federal and State systems have a Supreme Court, which is the highest court in either system.  The Appellate and Trial court levels, however, differ in their terminology.  In the State system, the appellate courts are district courts and the trial courts are circuit courts while the Federal system appellate courts are circuit courts and the trial courts are district courts.

As the graphic above shows, a federal claim starts in one of the District Courts and then moves up to the Appellate level and the Supreme Court level if necessary.  Each state has at least one district, and some have two or three.  For example, Florida is split into three Federal districts:

Northern District of Florida

Middle District of Florida

Southern District of Florida

Pay close attention to where your case is located within the three districts.  If your case goes to the appellate level from the FL District Court, you would file in an 11th Circuit Court.

Map of the 11 Circuits in the United States

As you can see above, FL falls within the 11th Circuit along with Alabama and Georgia.  In Florida, the 11th Circuit Courts are located in Miami and Jacksonville.  The other two 11th Circuit Courts are in Atlanta, GA, and Montgomery, AL.

Here's a graph of how a case filed in Federal Court in Florida would ascend through the court hierarchy:

The decision to file in State or Federal court can be tricky, but grasping a knowledge and understanding of how each system works (and where you would have to travel based on where you filed) can help make that decision easier.

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