Overview of the US Court System

CourthouseThe United States has two court systems: federal and state. While each hears certain types of cases, neither is completely independent of the other.  The reason for this is simple: the US Constitution gives certain powers to the federal government and reserves the rest for the states.

So the federal court system deals with legal issues expressly or implicitly granted to it by the U.S. Constitution, and state court systems deal with their respective state constitutions and the legal issues that the U.S. Constitution did not give to the federal government or explicitly deny to the states.

For example, because the Constitution gives Congress sole authority to make uniform laws concerning bankruptcies, a state court would lack jurisdiction. Likewise, since the Constitution does not give the federal government authority in most family law matters, a federal court would lack jurisdiction in a divorce case.

However,the two court systems often interact and share the goal of fairly handling legal issues.  The following summary should help illustrate how the two court systems work, both on their own and in concert with each other.

Federal Courts

The U.S. Constitution invests the judicial power of the United States in the federal court system. Article III, Section 1 specifically creates the U.S. Supreme Court and gives Congress the authority to create the lower federal courts.

Congress has established  13 U.S. Courts of Appeals, the 94 U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Court of Claims, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. U.S. Bankruptcy Courts handle bankruptcy cases. Magistrate Judges handle some District Court matters.

Parties dissatisfied with a decision of a U.S. District Court, the U.S. Court of Claims, and/or the U.S. Court of International Trade may appeal to a U.S. Court of Appeals.  A party may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court usually is under no obligation to do so.

How Judges are Selected

Federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They hold office for life. Through Congressional impeachment proceedings, federal judges may be removed from office for misbehavior.

Types of Cases Heard

  • Cases that deal with the constitutionality of a law;
  • Cases involving the laws and treaties of the U.S.;
  • Ambassadors and public ministers;
  • Disputes between two or more states;
  • Admiralty law; and
  • Bankruptcy.


State Courts

The Constitution and laws of each state establish the state courts. A court of last resort, often known as a Supreme Court, is usually the highest court. Some states also have an intermediate Court of Appeals. Below these appeals courts are the state trial courts. Some are referred to as Circuit or District Courts.

States also usually have courts that handle specific legal matters, e.g., probate court (wills and estates); juvenile court; family court; etc.  Parties dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court may take their case to the intermediate Court of Appeals.

Parties have the option to ask the highest state court to hear the case. Only certain cases are eligible for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

How judges are Selected

State court judges are selected in a variety of ways, including election, appointment (for a given number of years or life); or a combination of these methods.

Types of Cases Heard 

  • Most criminal cases;
  • Probate matters (involving wills and estates)
  • Most contract cases;
  • Tort (personal injury) cases; and
  • Family law cases

State courts are the final arbiters of state laws and constitutions. Their interpretation of federal law or the U.S. Constitution may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may choose to hear or not to hear such cases.