Intelligence Law School - Course 1: Lesson 6.1.2 Three-Tiered Structure of the Federal Court System [HTML-Only]

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6.1 Hierarchy of Judicial Opinions

6.1.2 Three-Tiered Structure of the Federal Court System

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Annotated Lecture Transcript

6.1.2 Three-Tiered Structure of the Federal Court System

Welcome to Lesson 6.

I’m glad you’ve made it this far.  

The big lessons on the big 3 sources of law are over, and this is the last substantive lesson in this introduction to legal sources in U.S. intelligence law.

I want to wrap up this course with a discussion of the hierarchy of legal sources.

What happens when different sources of primary legal authority conflict with one another?

Which source prevails?

How are judicial decisions about priority of legal sources made?

I’m going to begin by explaining the general structure of the federal court system and the hierarchy of judicial opinions.


Courts in the United States are generally divided into 3 basic levels:

Ø  Trial Courts;

Ø  Intermediate Appellate Courts; and

Ø  The Supreme Court


Ø  Federal Trial Courts - United States District Courts: The first level is the trial court level.

o   Trial courts in the federal system are called “United States District Courts.”

o   Or “District Courts” for short.

o   These are the trial courts, or courts of general jurisdiction.

o   District Court judges preside over trials where evidence is presented and lawyers do battle—plaintiffs vs. defendants in civil cases, prosecutors vs. defendants in criminal.

o   Trial Courts are your first stop.

o   They are where all findings of fact are performed.

o   There are 94 judicial districts across the United States and 650 federal district court judgeships spread out across those districts.[1]

o   Each of the individual 94 districts has jurisdiction over a defined territory usually drawn in relation to state boundaries.

o   26 states have only one judicial district, whereas larger states have multiple districts.

§  For example, New York has four big districts.

·         Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western.

·         The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has offices in Manhattan, White Plains, and Middletown.

·         The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York is in upstate New York. The Northern District has offices in Albany, Binghamton, Plattsburgh, Syracuse, and Utica.

·         The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York has courthouses in Buffalo and Rochester.

·         And the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York has a courthouse on Long Island and one in Brooklyn.

o   225 Cadman Plaza East.

o   Fuggetaboutit!

Ø  Intermediate Appellate Courts – United States Courts of Appeal (Circuit Courts): Above these trial courts, sit two appellate level courts.

o   The first appellate level contains intermediate appellate courts, which in the federal system are named “United States Courts of Appeals.”

o   These courts are also known as “Circuit Courts of Appeal” or simply “Circuit Courts.”

o   The second appellate level is the final level—the Supreme Court.

o   I’ll talk about it in a second.

o   Circuit Courts are the first place you appeal when you don’t like a legal determination made during the initial trial in the District Court.

o   Circuit Courts of Appeal are very different from the District Courts and trials you’re used to seeing on television.

o   District Courts are where the trial takes place.

o   In appellate courts, generally no new evidence is presented.

§  Appellate courts don’t hear testimony from witnesses.

§  Generally, no new findings of fact are made by appellate judges or Supreme Court Justices.

§  Appellate judges and Supreme Court Justices hearing cases on appeal are limited to reviewing the trial court record created at the District Court level.

§  In cases involving challenges to administrative agencies, the appellate court is usually limited to reviewing the administrative record unless a statute provides for review de novo.

o   All the action at the appellate level centers on the intellectual duel between two attorneys on opposing sides—petitioner and respondent—duking it out in oral argument over well-defined questions of law.

o   Each Circuit Court reviews disputes over matters of law and is empowered to issue holdings that are binding on all lower courts within its jurisdiction.

o   There are 13 Circuit Courts total.[2]

o   12 Circuit Courts have jurisdiction based along geographic lines—like the District Courts.

o   They have jurisdiction over all of the District Courts located within their territory.

o   All of these 12 Circuits each have a territory comprising several states, except 1—the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

§  The D.C. Circuit hears cases originating in Washington D.C.

§  It’s a critically important Circuit for intelligence law and administrative law generally despite its small territory because it hears the bulk of appeals challenging the activities of federal agencies, which are mostly located in Washington D.C.

o   So of the 13 Circuits, 12 have their jurisdiction defined by geography.

o   The 13th Circuit is the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

§  It’s located in Washington D.C. like the D.C. Circuit, but its jurisdiction isn’t defined by geography; it’s defined by subject matter.

§  The Federal Circuit has jurisdiction to hear appeals from any territory or district court across the country if those appeals involve certain subjects like disputes involving patents or trademarks, public contracts, appeals from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and several other topics specified in its jurisdiction statute.[3]

Ø  Court of Last Resort – United States Supreme Court: After these Circuit Courts of Appeal, there is only one court left where a litigant may appeal an adverse ruling—the United States Supreme Court.

o   It is the court of last resort.

o   The Constitution grants the Supreme Court both appellate and original jurisdiction, but its original jurisdiction is limited to special cases that almost never arise.

o   Most of the cases brought to the Supreme Court involve its appellate jurisdiction.

o   The Supreme Court’s appellate docket is primarily discretionary, and it selects almost all of the cases it hears by issuing writs of certiorari.

o   Typically, the Supreme Court hears less than 125 cases per year, so the intermediate appellate courts—the Circuit Courts of Appeal—are where most legal disputes come to an end.

o   The Supreme Court may be supreme, but its tiny docket means that the Circuit Courts are the actual court of last resort in about 98% of federal cases.[4]



[1] See Encyclopedia Britannica , United States District Court (Student and Home Edition 2009).

[2] See Encyclopedia Britannica , United States Courts of Appeal (Student and Home Edition 2009).

[3] See 28 U.S.C. § 1295.

[4] See Encyclopedia Britannica , Supreme Court of the United States (Student and Home Edition 2009).


© 2012 David Alan Jordan. All rights reserved.