The U.S. federal court system: A brief introduction

One of the great advantages of a Trump presidency is that I’ve learned so much about how the government works. Never before in my life have I been able to tell you who the name of the appointee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, or the difference between an executive order and memorandum, or the precise mechanism by which the Constitution was ratified.

When something works, you can be content to let it run in the background. When it breaks, you suddenly have to be an expert. Government is no different.


The U.S. federal court system consists of three levels. From lowest to highest, they are:

  1. District courts
  2. Circuit courts
  3. The Supreme Court

The district courts are the front lines of the federal court system — trial courts that typically issue the first judgment on a case. There are 94 districts in the U.S. I live in the Northern District of Ohio, which is roughly half of the state.

The circuit courts are appellate courts, that is, courts of appeal. If you’re not happy with a district court’s decision, you can appeal to a circuit court, and they can either accept the lower court’s ruling, or decide something else. There are 13 circuits in the U.S. I live in the Sixth Circuit.


Click to enlarge. Colored regions are circuits. (There are 11 numbered circuits, plus a D.C. Circuit and a Federal Circuit.) Dotted lines are district borders. Source:

If you disagree with a circuit court’s decision, you can appeal to the Supreme Court. They probably won’t take your case — apparently they’re “really busy” or some nonsense — but if they do, they’ll have the final say in the matter.

All federal judges, at all levels, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

Let’s see it in action, kids!

The President’s extremely controversial travel ban, issued as an executive order, was challenged in a number of courts around the country. Most significantly, the state of Washington challenged the ban in a district court — the Court for the Western District of Washington — where Judge James Robart issued a temporary block on the order, giving the judicial branch time to consider the case more carefully. He wasn’t saying the order was illegal or unconstitutional, only that it was likely enough to be illegal or unconstitutional that it should be put on hold for the moment.

Naturally, the Trump administration — the Justice Department — went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This appellate court decided to leave Robart’s temporary block in place for now, but it will render a further decision soon. That, too, will surely be appealed, and the case seems certain to land in the Supreme Court — which still only has eight justices at the moment.

All ethical issues aside, it’s kinda neat to watch the gears of justice in action.

Incidentally, I was not able to discover the basis for the President’s statement — carefully reasoned and considered, I am sure — that Robart is a “so-called judge.” There does not seem to be a provision for revoking a judge’s authority when he disagrees with the executive branch. Something about the judicial branch being independent, a check on executive power, or whatever — I’m sure it’s not important.

2 responses to “The U.S. federal court system: A brief introduction

  1. interesting how the sophisticated “Left” from Europe seems to be more aligned with Trump when it comes to this issue.

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