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The Federal Court System

The structure of our judicial system results in the creation of many courts throughout the country, all with different jurisdictions. Some, like federal bankruptcy courts, only hear bankruptcy cases; others, like state family law courts, only hear issues dealing with the marriage or family; still others, like state district court, hear cases regarding state law and even federal law unless there is a specific statute that states otherwise. With all these difference courts deciding law every single day, it can be hard to determine which law governs which courts.

This post discusses the Federal Court System. The law of the land is governed by the Supreme Court of the United States, and it is the highest level of the federal judicial system. This court has nine Justices (one Chief Justice and 8 Associate Justices), and it has jurisdiction over lawsuits between two or more states, cases involving ambassadors or other public ministers. The Court also has jurisdiction to hear cases regarding the constitutionality of laws created by Congress, and even the constitutionality of laws created by state congresses around the country.

Below the Supreme Court of the United States are the the Circuit Court of Appeals. There are 13 appellate courts that are underneath the Supreme Court and they govern 12 geographical areas around the country. The 13th court of appeals is the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which has nationwide jurisdiction and hears cases regarding administrative law such as patents, international trade, and government contracts. Texas falls under the jurisdiction of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, while California falls under the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and New York falls under the jurisdiction of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Although all the Circuit Courts must follow the law handed down by the Supreme Court, if the Supreme Court has not ruled on a particular issue they do not have to follow the law of another Circuit Court. Although it may be very persuasive to another Circuit Court of Appeals, one Circuit's rulings are not required to be followed by another. For example, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals could rule one way, and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals could be presented with the same situation and could come out with a completely different ruling. Normally, if a situation like this arises, the Supreme Court will hear a case regarding that issue to settle the split amongst the Circuit Courts.

This brings us to the Federal District Courts. These courts must follow the law of the Supreme Court and the law of the Circuit Court which they are under. For instance, the North District Court of Texas falls under the jurisdiction of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals; therefore, any decisions that they render must be based on the law of the 5th Circuit, and cannot deviate from it. The country is divided in 94 districts, and there is at least one District Court in each state. It is here where either the judge or the jury determines whether a party wins or loses a case based on the facts. Once the District Court determines the facts and makes a judgment, the facts cannot be changed and the only matter that can be appealed is whether the correct law was applied.

This has been a broad overview of the Federal Judicial System. If you find yourself in need of representation in this daunting atmosphere, please feel free to contact our firm.

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