About Abortion Are You Pregnant? Professional Education Publications and Research U.S. Public Policy In Canada Membership Support NAF About NAF
 Find a Provider | News | Blog | Get Involved | Action Alerts | Clinicians for Choice | En español | En français | Site Map | Contact Us | NAF Home
NAF Logo Public policy programs provide scientific and medical expertise to policy makers and ensure that the voices of abortion providers and patients are heard in policy forums across the country.
Public Policyin the courts
Current Issues
in congress
in the executive branch
In the Courts
> Federal Court System
In The States
international issues
policy reports
Resources
Patient Partnership
Search prochoice.org
Powered by
Google
NAF Hotline
1-800-772-9100
Find a provider:
1-877-257-0012

(no funding assistance provided on this line)

FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM


> The U.S. Court System

> U.S. District Courts

> U.S. Courts of Appeal

> State Courts and the U.S. Supreme Court

> Significance of the Federal Court System

The U.S. court system

The U.S. Court System

U.S. District Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court

There are three levels of courts in the federal court system in which a federal case can be heard: a U.S. District Court, a U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. A case is first heard in the district court and then can be appealed to a court of appeals, also known as an appellate court. After that, a case can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Only a fraction of cases are ever heard by the Supreme Court; the judges on the appellate courts and district courts make the final decisions on most matters. This gives the judges of the "lower courts" - district courts and appellate courts - tremendous influence over how laws will be interpreted.

Judges in the federal courts are appointed for life by the President. This allows the President to have a major impact on how laws will be analyzed and implemented by the courts. Although President Bush has not yet had an opportunity to make a Supreme Court nomination, he is making a distinct and lasting impact on the federal court system with his federal judicial nominations. The nominations that Bush makes now will influence the outcome of many cases, including cases protecting a woman's right to choose abortion.

back to top

U.S. District Courts

Almost all federal cases are initially heard in a district court. Each state has at least one district court; the larger states have more than one. The President appoints district court judges to life terms, as he does with the judges in the appellate courts and the justices on the Supreme Court. A case in a district court may be decided by a jury or solely by the appointed judge and can be appealed to the Court of Appeals for that circuit (hyperlink to circuit below). In courts where the appointed judge makes the decision, his or her ruling, as with all federal judgeships, can have an enormous impact on the interpretation of federal law.

back to top

U.S. Courts of Appeal

The U.S. Courts of Appeal or appellate courts are organized into twelve circuits. Each circuit presides over cases from several states. For example, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond hears cases from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Usually, each case heard by a Court of Appeals is decided by a panel of three judges. The appellate court judges are appointed for life by the President, like the district courts and the Supreme Court. A final appeal can be made to the Supreme Court from the appellate courts. However, since the Supreme Court only hears a small number of cases, most decisions by the courts of appeal are final. Additionally, those decisions must be followed by all district courts in that circuit.

back to top

The U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court hears appeals from the appellate courts and also from state supreme courts when the matter concerns a federal law or the Constitution. The justices of the Supreme Court choose cases based on the controversy of the issue and the need for a Supreme Court interpretation.

back to top

Significance of the Federal Court System

Since only a fraction of the cases heard in the district courts and appellate courts are ultimately heard in front of the Supreme Court, the lower court judges are the final arbiters of most judicial matters. While these decisions are not binding on courts outside of their jurisdiction, their opinions are considered persuasive and often set trends that other district courts and circuits follow.

Additionally, the Supreme Court will often make the final decision on a case to resolve differences between the different appellate courts and district courts to ensure that federal laws are interpreted consistently throughout the country. Often, the Supreme Court attracts the most attention in the crusade to save Roe v. Wade. However, it is clear that the entire federal court system can have an impact on a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion.

back to top

NAF website Copyright 2010 National Abortion Federation. Use of this site signifies your agreement to our Usage and Privacy Policy.