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7.3: Structure of the Courts- The Dual Court and Federal Court System

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    Separate Federal and State Court Systems

    dual court system. State crimes, created by state legislatures, are prosecuted in state courts which are concerned primarily with the applying state law. Federal crimes, created by Congress, are prosecuted in the federal courts which are concerned primarily with applying federal law. As discussed below, it is possible for a case to move from the state system to the federal system when a defendant challenges the conviction on direct appeal through a writ of certiorari, or when the defendant challenges the conditions of confinement through a writ of habeas corpus.

    Dual Court System Structure

    Highest Appellate Court U.S. Supreme Court (Justices) (NoteCourt also has original/trial court jurisdiction in rare cases) (Note: Court will also review petitions for writ of certiorari from State Supreme Court cases). State Supreme Court (Justices)
    Intermediate Appellate Court U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Judges) State Appellate Court (e.g., Oregon Court of Appeals) (Judges)
    Trial Court of General Jurisdiction U.S. District Court (Judges) (Note: this court will review petitions for writs of habeas corpus from federal and state court prisoners) Circuit Court, Commonwealth Court, District Court, Superior Court (Judges)
    Trial Court of Limited Jurisdiction U.S. Magistrate Courts (Magistrate Judges) District Court, Justice of the Peace, Municipal Courts (Judges, Magistrates, Justices of the Peace)

    The Federal Court System

    [1] The lower federal court system has been expanded over the years, such as when Congress created the separate appellate courts in 1891.

    View the authorized federal judgeships at
    Trace the history of the federal courts at
    Trace the history of the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal courts here
    View cases that shaped the roles of the federal courts at
    Trace the administration of the federal courts at

    United States Supreme Court

    en banc, as one panel, together with their clerks and administrative staff, make up the Supreme Court. [View the biographies of the current U.S. Supreme Court Justices here:]. The Court’s decisions have the broadest impact because they govern both the state and federal judicial system. Additionally, this Court influences federal criminal law because it supervises the activities of the lower federal courts. The nine justices have the final word in determining what the U.S. Constitution permits and prohibits, and it is most influential when interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Robert H. Jackson stated in Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 433, 450 (1953), “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” Although it is commonly thought that the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say, this is not one hundred percent accurate. After the Court has read written appellate briefs and listened to oral arguments, it will “decide” the case. However, it frequently refers or sends, the case back to the state’s supreme court for them to determine what their own state constitution holds. Similarly, as long as the Court has interpreted a statute and not the constitution, Congress can always enact a new statute which modifies or nullifies the Court’s holding.

    Writs of Certiorari and the Rule of Four

    petition for the writ of certiorari. Four justices must agree to accept and review a case, and this only happens in roughly 10% of the cases filed. (This is known as the rule of four.) Once accepted, the Court schedules and hears oral arguments on the case, then delivers written opinions. Over the past ten years, approximately 8,000 petitions for writ of certiorari are filed annually. It is difficult to guess which cases the court will accept for review. However, a common reason the court accepts to review a case is that the federal circuits courts have reached conflicting results on important issues presented in the case.

    Take a virtual tour of the U.S. Supreme Court building:

    The United States Supreme Court Building


    Take a tour of the U.S. Supreme Court with CNN:

    Original (Trial Court) Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court: A Rarity

    original jurisdiction, and it does so in a few important situations, such as when one state sues another state. The U.S. Constitution, Art. III, §2, sets forth the jurisdiction of the Court. It states,

    United States Courts of Appeal

    U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The smallest circuit is the First Circuit with six judgeships, and the largest court is the Ninth Circuit, with 29 judgeships. Appeals court panels consist of three judges. The court will occasionally convene en banc and only after a party who has lost in front of the three-judge panel requests review. Because the Circuit Courts are appellate courts which review trial court records, they do not conduct trials and, thus, they do not use a jury.

    Click on this link to see the geographical jurisdiction of the U.S. Courts of Appeals:

    United States District Courts

    Article III courts, are the main trial courts in the federal court system. Congress first created these U.S. District Courts in the Judiciary Act of 1789. Now, ninety-four U.S. District Courts, located in the states and four territories, handle prosecutions for violations of federal statutes. Each state has at least one district, and larger states have up to four districts. Each district court is described by reference to the state or geographical segment of the state in which it is located (for example, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California). The district courts have jurisdiction over all prosecutions brought under federal criminal law and all civil suits brought under federal statutes. A criminal trial in the district court is presided over by a judge who is appointed for life by the president with the consent of the Senate. Trials in these courts may be jury trials.

    Link to a number of cases filed in U.S. District Courts
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    United States Magistrate Courts

    courts of limited jurisdiction in the federal court system, meaning that these legislatively-created courts do not have full judicial power. Congress first created the U.S. Magistrate Courts with the Federal Magistrate Act of 1968. Under the Act, federal magistrate judges assist district court judges by conducting pretrial proceedings, such as setting bail, issuing warrants, and conducting trials of federal misdemeanor crimes. There are more than five hundred Magistrate Judges who disposed of over one million matters.

    In the News:

    Article I Courts” as they owe their existence to an act of Congress, not the Constitution. Unlike Article III judges who hold lifetime appointments, Magistrate Judges, formerly referred to as “Magistrates” before the Judicial Improvement Act which took effect December 1, 1990, are appointed for eight-year terms.

    For a comprehensive review of the U.S. Magistrate Courts and U.S. Magistrate Judges see:

    Court Assignment

    en banc after a 2-1 panel decision finding Brendan Dassey’s confession was inadmissible.


    1. (The Judiciary Act of 1789 (Ch. 20, 1 Stat 73)
    2. Scheb II, J.M. (2013). Criminal Law and Procedure (8th ed., pp. 45). Belmont, CA: Cengage.

    This page titled 7.3: Structure of the Courts- The Dual Court and Federal Court System is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.