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An Overview of the Federal Court System

An Overview of the Federal Court System

Introduction To The Federal Court System

The court system in the United States is based upon the principle of federalism, which gives certain functions to the U.S. government, and leaves other functions to be performed by the states. 

The first Congress established a federal court system, and the individual states were permitted to continue their own judicial structure. Early in our history, most cases were tried in state courts.  Later on, the federal government and federal judiciary began to exercise jurisdiction over certain crimes and civil matters.  

As a result, a dual system of state and federal courts has evolved.  Therefore, federal and state courts may have concurrent jurisdiction over certain crimes. 

For instance, an individual who robs a bank may be tried and convicted in state court for robbery but may then be tried and convicted in federal court for the federal offense of robbery of a federally chartered savings institution. 

As such, the principle of double jeopardy – which precludes a defendant from being tried twice for the same offense – does not apply between the federal and state government. Therefore, if the state brings charges for a certain offense but does not get a conviction, in some cases the federal government may also be able to file charges against the defendant if the act is illegal under federal law.

Federal courts decide disputes concerning the U.S. Constitution and laws enacted by Congress, known as statutes.   Therefore, compared to state courts, federal courts decide very limited types of cases. 

Examples include cases in which the United States is a party, cases involving violations of the Constitution or federal law, crimes on federal land, and bankruptcy cases. Federal courts also hear cases based on state law that involve parties from different states.

Courts Within the Federal System

The federal court system consists of three main levels:

  • district courts (also known as the trial court),
  • circuit courts which are the first level of appeal, and
  • the Supreme Court of the United States, the final level of appeal in the federal system.

There are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court throughout the country. 

Although federal law is mostly uniform across the circuits, and all federal courts of appeals apply the same Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, there are occasional disagreements between the various circuits in the interpretation of federal law. 

Disagreements between courts of appeals on important issues of law, known as “circuit splits,” are one of the most common reasons that the Supreme Court may decide to review a case.

Federal District Courts

Congress has divided the country into 94 federal judicial districts, and in each district there is a federal district court.  Federal district courts are the lowest level of the federal court system and handle thousands of cases each year – both civil and criminal. 

As the federal trial courts, they are where federal cases are tried, where witnesses testify, and juries serve.  These courts have original jurisdiction over all cases that involve a violation of federal statutes or other instances of statutorily-defined federal jurisdiction.  Original jurisdiction refers to the power a court has to hear a case for the first time, as opposed to appellate jurisdiction, when a higher court has the power to review a lower court’s decision.  

Each district court has at least one U.S. District Judge, and they are responsible for managing the court and overseeing the court’s employees. 

Federal judges, including district court judges all the way up to Supreme Court justices, are selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate. 

While many resign or retire earlier, judges may hold the position for the rest of their lives, so long as they maintain “good behavior.”  They can be removed by impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate.  There are more than 670 district court judges nationwide.  

Some responsibilities of the district court are given to federal magistrate judges. Magistrates are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges. 

In criminal matters, magistrate judges may oversee certain cases, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, conduct initial hearings, set bail, decide certain motions (such as a motion to suppress evidence), and other similar actions. 

Each of the 94 federal judicial districts are also assigned a U.S. Attorney, who serves as the primary prosecutor for the federal government.

Federal Circuit Courts

Congress divided the country into 12 regional circuits, with each of the 94 districts being assigned to one of the twelve circuits.  In each circuit there is a court of appeals, which are the intermediate appellate level courts within the federal system. 

As an example, the U.S Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, located in Boston, Massachusetts, hears appeals from the U.S. District Courts for the Districts of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island.

Once the federal district court has decided a case, the case can be appealed to a U.S. court of appeal.  If you lose a trial in a district court, you can ask the court of appeals to review the case to see if the judge applied the law properly during your trial.  Any case may be appealed to the circuit court once the district court has finalized a decision.  However, there are certain issues that can be appealed before a final decision has been made in a case; this is called an interlocutory appeal.  

Circuit court judges are also appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Each circuit court has multiple judges, ranging from six on the First Circuit to twenty-nine judges on the Ninth Circuit.  However, appeals to circuit courts are first heard by a panel, consisting of three circuit court judges. Although it is rare, certain appeals may be heard “en banc,” meaning a case is heard before all the judges of a circuit court.  

When a case is appealed to a circuit court, the parties to the case file “briefs” to the court, arguing why the trial court’s decision should be “affirmed” or “reversed.” After the briefs are filed, the court will schedule “oral argument” in which the lawyers come before the court to make their arguments and answer the judges’ questions. 

United States Supreme Court

Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court, located in Washington, D.C., is the highest court in the land. 

As discussed above, in the federal system, there are two tiers of appeals courts, the U.S. Courts of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court.  Where the courts of appeals reviews judgements from district courts in their respective circuits, the Supreme Court reviews judgements from the courts of appeals, or cases brought in state court that deal with federal law. 

For instance, if a First Amendment freedom of speech case was decided by a state’s highest court (typically the state supreme court), that case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court even though it did not start out in the federal court system. 

However, if that same case were decided strictly on a state law similar to the First Amendment, that would not be a case for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider.

Unlike a court of appeals, the Supreme Court is not required to hear every case.  In fact, the Supreme Court only hears a very small percentage of the cases it is asked to review. 

If four justices of the Supreme Court vote to hear a case, the Court will issue a Writ of Certiorari.  This is an order to a lower court to send the records of the case to the Supreme Court for review.  After the writ is granted, the Supreme Court will take briefs from both parties and conduct oral argument.  If the writ is not granted, the lower court’s opinion stands.

The Court meets on the first Monday of October and usually remains in session until June.  Of approximately 5,000 appeals each year, the Court only agrees to review about 200, and it may not issue an opinion on each of those cases.  The Court usually decides to hear cases when there is a serious, glaring error or when there are conflicting decisions across the country regarding a particular issue. 

Those who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court are referred to as “justices” and, like other federal judges, they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term.

There are nine justices on the court – eight associate justices and one chief justice.  While the Constitution does not set any specific requirements for those who serve as justices on the Court, they are typically lawyers who have previously served as circuit court judges.

Justices are often former law professors as well. The chief justice acts as the administrator of the Court and whenever the position becomes vacant, the new chief justice is chosen by the President and approved by Congress.  Unlike the courts of appeals, the Supreme Court never sits in panels – all nine justices hear every case and cases are decided by a majority ruling.

Federal Criminal Appeals

General Considerations

If there is a conviction in a criminal case, a defendant will ordinarily have the right to an appeal.  In most criminal cases, an appeal is brought by the defendant after they have been found guilty.  Appeals by the government are limited under the U.S. Constitution. 

The 5th Amendment’s “double jeopardy” clause protects against multiple prosecutions for the same offense.  Therefore, if the defendant is acquitted, the government cannot appeal.  However, there are limited instances when the government may file an appeal. 

For instance, the government may appeal court rulings which grant a defendant post-conviction relief (e.g., the reversal of a conviction).  It can also appeal district court decisions on certain pre-trial motions (e.g., the suppression of evidence and sentencing issues). 

Criminal Appeals Process

As stated previously, there are two tiers of appeals courts, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, which review judgments from U.S. District Courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviews judgements from the Courts of Appeals.   With the exception of an interlocutory appeal, a defendant typically must wait until the final judgement of conviction before he or she may begin the appeals process.  The process of appealing a criminal case, begins with the defendant filing a notice of appeal.  

Under Rule 4(b)(1)(A) of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure a defendant’s notice of appeal must be filed in the district court within 14 days of the judgement. 

After the notice of appeal has been filed, the court of appeals will typically enter an order establishing the schedule for filing briefs.  The party appealing the case is responsible for obtaining the necessary transcripts of proceedings and assembling the “record” on appeal.  This includes items such as any relevant motions filed in the case, transcripts of relevant proceedings, and trial exhibits.  Counsel for the appellant typically must coordinate with the prosecutors handling the appeal on what should be included in the record.

The parties will then submit briefs, which is the most important document in an appeal.  The attorneys for the parties must make all of their arguments for affirming or reversing a judgment in the brief.  It is critical that these arguments be presented clearly and completely, because federal appeals judges will refuse to consider arguments that are not included in the briefs.  

Courts of appeals typically decide cases using panels of three judges.  The panel assigned to a particular case will read the briefs, review the record, and decide the case.  The majority of criminal appeals in federal courts are decided “on the briefs,” meaning without oral arguments. 

In certain instances, a panel may set a case for oral argument, wherein each party’s attorney will have the opportunity to persuade the court and answer any questions from the judges.  At the end of this process, the court of appeals issues a written decision.  The decision is usually accompanied by a detailed opinion, explaining the court’s reasoning for its decision.

The length of an appeal can vary from circuit to circuit, but typically, appeals in the federal criminal system can take a significant length of time.

Possible Outcomes of Appeal

Ultimately, the appellate court’s decision will either agree with the lower court and uphold the previous decision; or disagree with the lower court and reverse the previous decision; or agree in part, disagree in part, and remand the case back to the lower court to take further action or resolve certain questions.  In over approximately 90% of appealed criminal cases, the decision affirms the criminal conviction.

If the judgment is affirmed, it means that the court of appeals thinks the district court did not commit any error, or, if an error was committed, it was not serious enough that it would have affected the outcome.  If the judgement is reversed, the decision will typically include certain  additional instructions.  For instance, the court of appeals may instruct the trial court to dismiss the charges, to hold a new trial, to set aside a portion of a fine, or to re-sentence the defendant.  The exact instructions will depend upon the nature of the arguments raised on appeal and the specific remedies being sought by the defendant. 

If the court of appeals affirms the district court’s judgment, the attorney for the defendant (now referred to as the “appellant”) can ask the court of appeals to “rehear” the case.  Doing so can involve either the same panel of judges, known as a panel rehearing, or a rehearing en banc, where all the judges on the court hear the case.  As noted previously, an en banc hearing may be unlikely unless the case involves a significant legal issue.  A petition for rehearing must be filed within 14 days of the judgement by the court of appeals upholding the conviction.

If rehearing is not sought, or it is denied, the next option is to file a petition for a Writ of Certiorari, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.  Such petitions are rarely granted.  Again, the Court usually reserves granting certiorari in cases when there is a disagreement or “split” between two or more federal courts of appeals on an issue, or where the case involves an extraordinarily important issue of law.  Should the defendant seek to petition the Supreme Court for its review, they must do so within 90 days from the date of the court of appeals decision.

Finally, if the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, or it upholds the conviction, there is the option for filing a “motion to vacate the conviction” under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.  This is often referred to as a habeas petition, where a federal court may review the legality of the defendant’s incarceration.  Generally speaking, such a petition claims the defendant’s arrest, sentence, or trial violated constitutional law, making imprisonment unlawful. 

Arguments Made on Appeal

An appeal is not the same as a new trial, and therefore not a forum for determining whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty.  Rather, the court of appeals is focused on whether the district court correctly applied the law during the trial.  As such, the arguments made on appeal will be different than those presented at trial.  While the arguments will vary in each case, the issues that can be raised in an appeal or typically limited to what is called “trial court error.”  Specifically, these issues may include, composition of the jury, the admission of certain evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, jury instructions, or sentencing.  

Legal Representation of the Parties on Appeal

The Department of Justice, specifically the U.S. Attorney’s Office, represents the government in federal prosecutions, including appeals.  However, in all cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, the government is represented by the Solicitor General’s Office.  

Criminal defendants who can afford to pay for a private attorney may hire the federal attorney of their choice, typically one who specializes in appellate work.  However, if a defendant is found to be indigent, they shall be provided court-appointed counsel. 

Just as the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant’s right to have an attorney defend him or her at trial, this constitutional right to assistance of counsel has been extended by the U.S. Supreme Court to include representation during the first appeal after conviction, also known as an “appeal as a matter of right.”

Unlike the first appeal from a decision made by a district court, a “discretionary” appeal typically comes after the first appeal, wherein the defendant petitions the highest court available to them (i.e., the U.S. Supreme Court in a federal case).  Since the Supreme court has discretion whether or not to hear the case, or simply deny the appeal, there is no constitutional right to assistance of counsel in this circumstance.