Do you have a case in federal court? You may have heard that there are three levels of appeal. Technically, there are only two levels of appeal. While there are three levels in the United States federal court system, the first level is the district court, which hears trials, not appeals. In this blog post, our federal appellate law attorneys provide an in-depth overview of the most important things you should know about the three federal courts of appeal. 

Level #1: The District Court (Trial Court)

Where does a federal case start? Whether it is a federal criminal case or a federal civil case, the matter begins in district court. As explained by the Office of the United States Attorneys, there are 94 district courts nationwide. All 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have at least one district court. The larger states have multiple district courts. Here are some examples: 

  • Washington (2): Eastern District of Washington and Western District of Washington.  
  • Oregon (1): District of Oregon. 
  • California (4): Central District of California, Eastern District of California, Northern District of California, and Southern District of California. 
  • Michigan (2): Eastern District of Michigan and Western District of Michigan.  
  • Texas (4): Eastern District of Texas. Northern District of Texas, Southern District of Texas, and Western District of Texas. 

Notably, there are also some specialized federal district courts for certain subject-specific matters. For example, the United States Tax Court has nationwide jurisdiction over federal tax matters. Alternatively, the United States Court of Federal Claims has subject matter jurisdiction over claims made against the federal government or a federal government agency. 

Level #2: The Circuit Court (First Appellate First) 

Did you receive an adverse verdict from a federal court in a criminal case or a civil case? You have the right to appeal. The American Bar Association (ABA) states that “an appeal is not a retrial or a new trial of the case.” The appeals court in a federal case is generally not going to listen to new witnesses or review new evidence. Instead, the court is mainly limited to the trial record. Where does a federal appeal go? The first appellate court is the United States Court of Appeals. 

There are 12 U.S. circuit courts. You must appeal the appropriate circuit. The different circuits are geographical—they are not, at the current time, divided evenly in size. Much of the western U.S.—including California, Washington, and Oregon—is covered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Though, the circuits are not always geographically intuitive. For example, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee. 

Level #3: The Supreme Court (Final Arbiter) 

You can appeal an adverse decision from the United States Court of Appeals. The second level of appeal in federal cases is to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court is the nation’s highest court, and it is the final arbiter in both federal criminal cases and federal civil cases. To be clear, the Supreme Court does not have to agree to hear any appeal. You always have the right to seek a review by the Supreme Court after going to a Circuit Court, but the Supreme Court may decline to hear the case. Generally, the U.S. Supreme Court only hears; 

  • Cases that are deemed to be of national significance; 
  • Cases involving a significant circuit split; or
  • Cases that otherwise have high precedential value. 

Most petitions filed with the U.S. Supreme Court are denied. Indeed, the United States Court system data showed that approximately 125 of 7,000 petitions for review are accepted by the Supreme Court each year. In other words, the Supreme Court declines to hear appeals nearly 98% of the time. 

Speak to Our Federal Appellate Lawyers Today

At The Appellate Law Firm, our law firm handles the full range of federal appeals, including both civil cases and criminal cases. If you have any specific questions or concerns about the federal appeals process, our law firm is here as a resource. Get in touch with us by phone or contact us online to arrange your confidential, no-obligation initial appointment with a top attorney. We are committed to providing justice-driven, solutions-focused legal representation in federal appeals. 

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