About U.S. Federal Courts

Our Founding Fathers understood the need for an independent Judiciary, which was created under Article III of the United States Constitution. The Judicial Branch is one of one of the three separate and distinct branches of the federal government. The other two are the legislative and executive branches. For more information on the courts system, visit the U.S. Courts website.

The Federal Court system is separated into five main areas:

1. The Supreme Court of the United States
The United States Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices. At its discretion, and within certain guidelines established by Congress, the Supreme Court each year hears a limited number of the cases it is asked to decide. Those cases may begin in the federal or state courts, and they usually involve important questions about the Constitution or federal law. For more information about the Supreme Court, visit the Supreme Court's official website.

2. U.S. Courts of Appeals
The 94 U.S. judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. A court of appeals hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

3. U.S. District Courts
The United States district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters. Every day hundreds of people across the nation are selected for jury duty and help decide some of these cases. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Three territories of the United States--the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands--have district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases. See the map above or view a Printable Circuit/District map at the U.S. Courts website.

4. U.S. Bankruptcy Courts
Each of the 94 federal judicial districts handles bankruptcy matters, and in almost all districts, bankruptcy cases are filed in the bankruptcy court. Bankruptcy cases cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy laws help people who can no longer pay their creditors get a fresh start by liquidating their assets to pay their debts, or by creating a repayment plan. Bankruptcy laws also protect troubled businesses and provide for orderly distributions to business creditors through reorganization or liquidation. These procedures are covered under Title 11 of the United States Code (the Bankruptcy Code). The vast majority of cases are filed under the three main chapters of the Bankruptcy Code, which are Chapter 7, Chapter 11, and Chapter 13.

5. U.S. Courts of Special Jurisdiction
These include the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. For more information on these courts, visit the U.S. Courts website.

U.S. Court of Appeals for Armed Forces Special Session

The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces celebrated the centennial of the opening of its historic courthouse at 450 E Street, NW, Washington, DC with a special session of court on 1 October 2010. Presiding was the Court's chief judge, Andrew S. Effron. The Court was honored by the presence of the Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts, Jr., who unveiled a plaque listing all the judges who sat in the courthouse during its first century. He was joined in this by the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, David B. Sentelle, and Chief Judge Effron. The District of Columbia Circuit sat in the courthouse from 1910 to 1952, when it was occupied by the United States Court of Military Appeals, as it was then known. The principal speakers were Judge Scott W. Stucky of the Couirt of Appeals for the Armed Forces, who spoke on the courthouse as a building, and Professor Steven H. Goldblatt of Georgetown Law School, Chairman of the court's Rules Advisory Committee, who spoke on the development of the law in the courthouse. A reception was held afterward in the courthouse's Grand Foyer.