The federal court system includes a number of different types of courts, including courts designed for specific purposes (i.e. bankruptcy or tax cases), courts designed strictly for appeals, and others that serve in a supporting role to district judges. Here is a quick look at the different types of federal courts in the U.S.:
There are 94 federal judicial districts, each containing its own federal district court. These are lower trial courts, where cases are tried, juries serve, and witnesses testify. State boundaries are often used to define federal districts, like for the Idaho District Court, but for states like California, the district may cover just part of a state (like the Northern District of California). You can find your federal district court using the U.S. Courts’ Court Locator.
Appellate courts are where you can appeal the findings of federal court judges. All of the 94 federal districts are divided into 12 regional circuits, each of which has its own court of appeals.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. The U.S. Supreme Court is different from any other court, especially when it comes to which cases it can decide to hear. The Supreme Court can only hear cases that have been appealed from lower courts, and it only deals with cases that involve federal law or otherwise fall into federal court jurisdiction. The Supreme Court can hear cases that name the U.S. as a party in the case; involve a violation of the U.S. Constitution; involve a violation of federal laws; involve citizens of different states and the amount in question exceeds $75,000; or involve bankruptcy, copyright, patent, or maritime law.
Article I Courts
“Article I” courts refer to Article I of the United States Constitution, which established the legislative branch of the U.S. government. These courts are created to help support the laws they have written. For example, Congress created specific bankruptcy and tax courts to hear cases about the tax code or bankruptcy code. Another example would be courts in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories; since they are not governed by the Constitution, Congress created a court system to handle their cases.
Article III Courts
“Article III” courts refer to Article III of the United States Constitution, which established the judicial branch of the U.S. government. These courts are expressly authorized in the Constitution, and they take some of the workload off of that district’s judge by hearing pre-trial motions (legal arguments that occur before actual trial starts). The judges in Article III courts are called magistrate judges, and with the consent of both parties involved, they can also hear minor cases.
It is important to note that Article I and Article III courts are subject to substantially different rules than other courts. For example, magistrate judges in Article III courts are constitutionally protected and typically appointed by the president for life. On the other hand, Article I judges are sometimes appointed by Congress members and other times are voted onto the bench by a Congressional committee.