The Modern US Federal Court System: The Role of the Supreme Court


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D.George Mason University

We know that there are different kinds and levels of courts in the US. But, how are they organized? What is the system by which courts look at the various types of cases? Can all courts hear all cases? And, how does a case get to the Supreme Court? Let’s find out.

Close-up of an inscription on a courthouse.
Each federal court has its own area of jurisdiction. (Image: blurAZ/Shutterstock)

Types of Cases

We can think of the legal system in the US as having three types of cases: criminal law cases, civil law cases, and administrative law cases.

In a criminal case, the government is always the plaintiff—the party bringing charges against a defendant who is accused of harming public health, safety, morals, or welfare. Criminal cases can result in jail time, fines, or, in the death penalty cases, execution.

In a civil case, there is no criminal charge, and a suit can be brought by any individual. Civil cases cannot result in fines or jail time, but losing parties can be required to pay financial damages. In a civil case, a plaintiff brings a lawsuit against a defendant, and often the complaint has to do with a violation of a contract or some form of harm, known as a tort.

Finally, administrative law cases involve the powers of government, such as constitutional law. These cases can overlap with criminal or civil cases and involve the action of some public entity, agency, or official.

Learn more about how the judicial branch works.

State and Federal Courts

Judge’s gavel, statue and scales of justice
Federal courts preside over cases involving federal laws. (Image: Zolnierek/ Shutterstock)

The federal court system is made up of district courts, Federal Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. The district courts and the Supreme Court each have a few areas of law over which they have what is known as original jurisdiction, meaning cases that are brought in those legal areas must go directly to that court because there is no appropriate lower court for the cases to go to.

States also have court systems that include their own district courts and courts of appeals. At the state level, the state supreme court is the highest court, but the Federal Supreme Court is the highest court of the land and can hear appeals or challenges that come from state courts. Most of the time, when people are charged with crimes it occurs at the state level. Most violent crimes like murder, arson, rape, and so forth, are generally tried at the state level rather than the federal level, except under special circumstances.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US GovernmentWatch it now, Wondrium.

District and Appeals Courts

At the lowest level, there are 89 Federal district courts throughout the various states in the union, plus one in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and each of the US territories. This level of the federal court system includes a few specialized courts that have original jurisdiction over specific areas of law, like the US Court of Federal Claims, as well as the US Tax Court. Federal district courts also hear cases that are brought on federal criminal or civil charges.

If a party is on the losing end in the Federal district court, they can appeal the decision to the Federal Appeals Court. If a case loses at the Federal Court of Appeals, the losing party can appeal again to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court: The Three Rules of Access

For the Supreme Court to hear a case it must satisfy three rules of access: controversy, standing, and mootness.

Front façade of the United States Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court can hear appeals cases from a Federal Court of Appeals. (Image: Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock)

Controversy means there must be a real point of contention in the case that the Court’s decision can settle. Standing means that only affected parties can being a case. Finally, mootness means that the Court will only hear cases where the question before the Court has not already been settled.

These three rules of access are necessary conditions that a case must satisfy, but they are not sufficient conditions. In other words, a case must have these three characteristics to be heard at the Supreme Court but having these characteristics does not guarantee that the Court will hear a case.

Then, how does the Supreme Court decide whether to hear a case or not? Most cases are appealed to the Supreme Court using a procedure called writ of certiorari, or cert for short. This procedure is simply a request for the Supreme Court to hear a case on appeal. The Supreme Court receives around 7,000 or 8,000 petitions for cert each year. Of these, the Court may hear around 100 or fewer cases. When the Court agrees to hear a case, we say that the Court has granted cert to the case.

Learn more about the framework of US Federalism.

The Likelihood of Cert

Scholars have observed that cases with three particular characteristics are more likely to be granted cert than others.

First, when there is conflict or division in the lower courts, then the Supreme Court is more likely to hear a case on this topic in order to try to settle the controversy and create a more coherent legal standard. Second, cases in which civil rights are at stake are more likely to be heard by the Supreme Court. And, third, cases in which the federal government is an appellant are more likely to be heard by the Supreme Court.

Common Questions about the Federal Court System

Q. Who is the plaintiff in criminal cases?

In a criminal case, the government is always the plaintiff.

Q. Which is the lowest level of the federal court system?

At the lowest level, there are 89 Federal district courts throughout the various states in the union, plus one in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and each of the US territories.

Q. What are the three rules of access that a case must satisfy, to be heard by the Supreme Court?

The three rules of access are: controversy, standing, and mootness.

Keep Reading
John Marshall and His Influence on the Judiciary
US Constitution: Civil Liberties in the Bill of Rights
The Philadelphia Convention and the New Constitution