The federal judiciary of the United States is split into, essentially, one court system for the national government and one for each of the states. The federal courts are then split up further. The first level of federal courts are the district courts, including the U. S. Tax Court, followed by the U.
S. courts of appeal, which includes the U. S. Claims Court and the Court of International Trade. On the top of the pyramid lies the U. S.
Supreme Court, which handles cases of the utmost importance. A good majority of the laws, legal disputes, and court decisions are made within the states, but the extremely important eventually make their way to the federal courts, such as those concerning political and constitutional issues. The federal district courts are the first courts to hear any given case on the federal level. Most of the cases that make it to the federal court system are first heard in one of the 94 district courts, and the majority of the business of the federal courts takes place at this level.
A grand jury is used to indict a defendant in criminal cases, versus a panel of judges. Also, this is the only level in the federal court system that uses juries and witnesses, and non-criminal cases may be heard either by a petit jury or by a bench trial. The second level of the federal court system consists of the U. S.
courts of appeal, the intermediate courts of appellate jurisdiction, these courts do not hear new cases, only those that have been appealed from the lower courts. The United States is divided into eleven geographic regions, also called circuits, to hear appeals from the district courts, two additional courts reside in Washington, D. C. The procedure of this court is very different compared to that of the district courts. First of all, the judges convene as panels of three or more to hear oral arguments from the lawyers on each side of the case and to cross-examine them on point of law. The lawyers for each side make their case for the judges by submitting briefs that set out the legal issues, accompanied by short oral presentations.
Another major difference in the courts of appeal, is that new factual evidence cannot be submitted, as appeals are based on legal issues rather that factual material, and no witnesses are called or cross-examined. After the lawyers make their cases, the panel of judges issues a decision, which can take several months after the original arguments took place. The long wait is primarily due to the fact that appellate cases involve considerable study, writing, and discussion among the judges before the decision is reached. In some very important cases, a written explanation of the judges' reasoning may be included with the decision. The third and highest level of the federal court system is the U. S.
Supreme Court. This is the only court specifically mentioned in Article III of the Constitution, and is a court of both original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction. This court serves as an appellate court for both the federal courts of appeal and for the highest courts of the states, however, the appellate jurisdiction is discretionary in that the Supreme Court decides for itself whether or not to accept any given case. Congress, on the other hand, determines the size of the Supreme Court and the appellate jurisdiction of thereof, a good example of the checks and balances system. And as the highest appellate court in the federal court system, decisions and opinions made by the Supreme Court become the most important sources of precedent on federal and constitutional questions for courts at all levels of jurisdiction.