3. Structure of the Courts

Overview This section's resources address the federal system of courts, as authorized by the U.S. Constitution and Congress.

Article III of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the United States government by vesting judicial power in “one [S]upreme Court” and “such inferior Courts” as Congress may establish under Article III. Congress is also authorized to establish other inferior courts under other provisions of the Constitution. As a result of this separation and delegation of powers, our federal court system has different levels and differing powers – called jurisdiction – to consider cases. Two main levels of the courts are appellate courts and trial courts. Appellate courts review decisions of trial courts, whether directly or through review of a lower appellate court’s decision. And different levels of courts exist within both of those main levels.

Of course, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system. The Supreme Court mostly exercises appellate jurisdiction, reviewing decisions of intermediate federal appellate courts or of the highest appellate court in a state. Intermediate federal appellate courts include, primarily, one specialized plus twelve regional courts of appeals, called circuit courts.

Federal trial courts are the courts that hear a case at the beginning. District courts try almost all kinds of federal cases, both civil and criminal. There are 94 district courts in the nation, including district courts in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. A separate bankruptcy court, albeit a unit of the district court, is also a trial court in each district. Congress has also established two specialized trial courts, the U.S. Court of International Trade, which handles international trade disputes, and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which handles claims against the U.S. Government.

Other trial courts Congress has created include the territorial courts for Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. These are called district courts but have powers and judicial terms that are different from the district courts mentioned above. And Congress has authorized a separate judiciary for the District of Columbia.

In addition to the courts of the judicial branch, Congress has established some courts outside the judicial branch to carry out a legislative power. These courts include the U.S. Tax Court (trial court), appellate and trial courts dealing with the military, the Social Security Administration’s administrative tribunal, and the High Court of American Samoa.

Another way of describing the federal court system structure is with reference to the article of the Constitution under which a court is established. The two primary differences between Article III courts and other federal courts are the power to decide certain cases and the protections afforded to the judges. Article III judges enjoy the broadest power to decide cases as well as lifetime tenure and protection from salary decreases. The majority of federal courts are established under Article III – the Supreme Court, the courts of appeals, and district courts, except for the territorial district courts, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Most other federal courts are Article I courts (Article I, Section 8, clause 9); these include bankruptcy courts, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the U.S. Tax Court, the District of Columbia’s judiciary, military courts, and the Social Security administrative tribunal. Territorial courts, such as the district courts for Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as the High Court of American Samoa, are established under Article IV’s Territorial Clause (Article IV, Section 3, clause 2).  

Learning Objectives |  Students will be able to: 
  • Understand the different types and levels of federal courts 
  • Understand what kind of cases are appropriate for federal courts versus state courts 
  • Understand what happens in an appeal of a trial court's decision 
  • Understand that issues on appeal usually involve competing arguments that have legitimate bases and are not "clear cut"

Summary of Resources Below is the list of resources gathered in this section.  Click on the titles to learn more. 

Resources |  
  1. Appellate Courts: Let's Take It Up
    • By following the case of a real middle school girl who was strip searched at school, students find out what happens when someone takes a case all the way to the Supreme Court.  This lesson plan on Appellate Courts from the iCivics website has a step-by-step plan for those presenting to middle school students.  The lesson plan includes a multi-part lesson, a teacher's guide with learning objectives, and worksheets/handouts.
    • Lesson Plan from iCivics
    • Age: (P), M, (H) 
  2. Court Quest
    • Presenters looking for a very engaging way to teach middle school and older students about the federal court system could moderate or oversee students' playing of this online interactive game.  The game makes a fun activity out of a challenge that would not normally be considered a game — deciding what court citizens with different cases should go to. The game is part of a very robust site with other related materials, including videos, lesson plans and current news stories.   
    • Game from Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics and iCivics
    • Age: M, H, A 
  3. Courts in the Classroom
    • This web page hosts three series of videos targeted to older primary and middle school audiences:  a series on The Big Ideas, with videos on Privacy, Free Expression, Symbolic Speech, Censorship, Courts, Due Process, Laws, Checks and Balances; The Third Branch, with two videos titled  About Judges and about Courts; and Landmark Cases, with videos on the  First, Fourth, Fourteenth Amendments and Checks and Balances.  The web page also has quizzes, a resources guide for teachers, and related lesson plans. 
    • Videos from the Judicial Council of California and the Administrative Office 
    • Age: P, M (H)
  4. Federal Courts & What They Do
    • This is a simple downloadable 33-page pdf document that provides a detailed explanation of the Federal Court system via question-based topics that typically are about a page long.  The full document is appropriate for high school and older audiences, but younger audiences could appreciate the diagram of the Court Systems of the United States included in the document as well as the map of the Geographical Boundaries of U.S. Courts of Appeals and U.S. District Courts.   
    • Document from the Federal Judicial Center
    • Age: H, A
Resources, cont. 
  1. Interactive Diagram of the Federal Court System
    • This is a simple, neutral interactive chart that, when manipulated, provides a detailed explanation of the Federal Court system appropriate for presenting to students in middle school and above.  Clicking on one of the boxes 'opens' that part of the court system to present more in-depth information via videos of judges speaking about the court structure.  
    • Interactive document from Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics
    • Age: M, H, A 
  2. Oyez Baseball
    • Oyez Baseball is an online interactive game by two prominent legal organizations — Justia and the Oyez Project — that draws connections between "America's Favorite Sport" and the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.  As such, it is "part of a larger effort to bring the work of the nation's highest court — in text, audio and images — to the widest possible audience."  Because of the special nature of the information (users need to know about great baseball players of the past), the game is best targeted to older students who are interested in sports and politics.
    • Game from Justia and the Oyez Project
    • Age: (M) H, A   
  3. Supreme Decision 
    • This online computer game can be played with middle and high school students to help them learn about how the Supreme Court makes decisions.  The case study simulation guides students as they dissect the processes of the Supreme Court.
    • Game from iCivics
    • Age: M, H 
  4. What the Federal Courts Do
    • This is a simple online series of "documents" that via slideshow navigation provides a detailed explanation of the Federal Court system.  Useful for presentations to middle school and older students, the slideshow includes six main sections:  
      1. What the Federal Courts Do,
      2. How the Federal Courts Are Organized
      3. How Cases Move Through the Federal Courts
      4. Who Does What
      5. The Federal Courts and the Other Branches of Government, and 
      6. Federal Court Governance and Administration
      Quiz #2: How the Federal Courts Are Organized would be an especially useful test of knowledge.  That quiz can be found here.
    • Website/slideshow from the Federal Judicial Center
    • Age: M, H, A