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U.S. Federal Court System

Federal courts handle all immigration, bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and criminal cases that involve violations of federal laws. Like state courts, the U.S. federal court system is structured into lower trial courts (U.S. District Courts), appellate courts that review lower court decisions (U.S. Courts of Appeals), and a high court that reviews U.S. District Court decisions as well as state supreme court rulings (U.S. Supreme Court). FindLaw's U.S. Federal Court System section provides an overview of the federal court system, including articles about the U.S. Supreme Court, the meaning and function of the Supremacy Clause, an introduction to the federal court system, and other related information. In this section, you can also find directories for bankruptcy and immigration courts as well as a directory for federal courts throughout the United States.

What Is the Supremacy Clause?

The Supremacy Clause is found within Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, and establishes that federal law is the "supreme law of the land." The effect that this has on the state court system is that judges in every state must follow the U.S. Constitution and federal laws in matters that are directly or indirectly within the government's control. The doctrine of preemption is based on the Supremacy Clause and it provides that federal law preempts, or trumps, state laws. For example, if the federal government enacts a law that preserves and protects Native American tribes and their land in the United States, and a state passes a law that land owned by Native Americans is now state property, the federal law would preempt the state law under the Supremacy Clause.

The Structure of the Federal Court System

The federal court system is divided into three levels of courts: District Courts, Courts of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. The United States is divided into ninety four federal judicial districts, and each district has a U.S. District Court, which is basically a federal trial court, as well as a U.S. bankruptcy court. Depending on the size of the state, there may be one district court for the whole state or there may be multiple district courts within a state.

Congress has also created twelve regional circuits, which each contain a U.S. Court of Appeals. The regional circuit in which a district court is located will determine which court of appeals circuit is appropriate for a case. If a person loses his or her case in a federal district court, he or she has the option to file an appeal with a federal court of appeals, which will review whether or not the district judge applied the law correctly.

Finally, there is the Supreme Court of the United States, which is the highest court in the nation. This is the final option to appeal the decision of a U.S. court of appeals or a state supreme court. Unlike U.S. Courts of Appeals, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to decide whether or not it would like to review a case, and generally, it reviews a small number of cases that it is asked to review.

Hiring an Attorney

Whether your case is in a federal court or a state court, it will require knowledge of the law as well as knowledge of the rules and procedures of the court. Generally speaking, if you are planning to sue someone, or are being sued yourself, it's in your best interest to contact a local litigation attorney for guidance.

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