How is the Appellate Court System Organized

Any court that can review the decisions of lower courts is considered an appellate court. Picturing the court system as a hierarchical organizational chart – two charts, actually, one for the federal system and one for the state system – helps clarify the difference between the Supreme Court and the other appellate courts. This quick guide to the different layers of the org chart in the court system will help the reader understand how a case works its way through the appellate court system.

Federal court system

In the federal court system, the box at the top of the organizational chart (or “org chart”), the top box reserved for the biggest boss, is occupied by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the only Court empowered by the U.S. Consititution. Article III says, “The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may … establish.” No court can reverse a U.S. Supreme Court decision; however, the Supreme Court has the power to decide whether decisions by the “inferior courts” empowered by Congress will be upheld or reversed.  

The fourteen regional Circuit Courts of Appeal fill the second layer of boxes on the org chart. The Circuit Courts of Appeal review decisions made by District Court judges in their respective geographic regions, or Circuits. Each Circuit includes from two to nine states, with two exceptions. The D.C. District only reviews cases that originate in Washington, D.C. The Federal Circuit reviews cases from across all the circuits as long as they fall into certain categories, like intellectual property, government contracts, and international trade.

On the third and final layer of the org chart come the dozens of U.S. District Courts. The District Court is a trial court, where litigants appear before judges and juries. There is at least one U.S. District Court in each state.

State court system

The state court system mirrors the federal system, with a state supreme court at the top, an appellate court in the middle, and trial courts at the bottom. The courts go by different names, depending on the state. The state court system handles only cases that involve state issues: violations of state law or torts committed inside the state’s borders.

Like the U.S. Supreme court, a state supreme court cannot be overturned by any other state court below it. It can, however, be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court – but only on a matter that involves interpretation of federal law.

A murder charge, for example, could be subject to Supreme Court review. Miurder is a state crime, and trial for the crime of murder takes place in the state court system. However, if a convicted murderer claims that his federal civil rights were violated during his trial, his raising of the federal issue makes his case subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, there is a “dotted line” relationship between the state court org chart and the federal court org chart, between the State Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

This quick guide has used an corporate organizational chart as a model to explain the difference between an appellate court and the U.S. Supreme court. Readers are encouraged to use this guide to enable them to draw the chart for each court system on paper to better understand how courts are organized in the United States.