The federal court system of the United has three main levels: district courts, circuit courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Federal judges and Supreme Court justices are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a lifetime term. As Judge Charles Burns mentions, federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution and have a much narrower jurisdiction in comparison to state courts.

Judge Charles Burns offers an overview of the federal court system of the United States

In order to file a lawsuit in federal court, one has to allege that there has been a breach of federal law or the U.S. Constitution. These are the cases that basically raise a “federal question.” Federal courts also hear unique types of cases that involve “diversity of citizenship” where the case is between citizens of different states and potential damages go above $75,000.

In the federal court system, a case starts at the lowest level, which is the U.S. district court. If a party disagrees with the outcome at the trial level, they might appeal it to a higher court and eventually petition all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

District courts essentially are the starting points for federal cases, where a trial takes place.  There are 94 active district courts across the United States. Each of the state in the country has between one and four districts. Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia both have one district court. Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also have their very own territorial courts that function as district courts.

The number of judges in a district court tends to vary. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California have 28 judges each, which is the highest in the country.  On the other hand, the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho only has two judges, as do many other district courts. As Judge Charles Burns underlines, district court judges can also appoint magistrate judges due to the heavy workload at the trial level. The magistrate judges are judicial officers who serve time-limited terms and assist with court proceedings

After the district court come the circuit courts. There are 13 circuit courts in the United States. 12 are organized geographically and one is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The latter primarily hears specific national jurisdiction cases, which include patent lawsuits and appeals from the U.S. Court of International Trade. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for instance, includes Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan. Hence, any case decided within the nine districts in this geographic region shall head to the 6th Circuit.

The number of judges in each circuit does vary. While the 1st Circuit has six judges, the 9th has 29. However, it is vital to note that only three of the judges are randomly selected to form the panel that will decide the appeal. There can be rare occasions where a circuit court can rehear a case “en banc” with the entire slate of judges reviewing the case, after the three judge-panel makes a decision.