Courts of Appeals and District Courts

The second highest level of the federal judiciary is made up of the courts of appeals, created in 1891 to facilitate the disposition of cases and ease the burden on the Supreme Court. The United States is divided into 11 separate appeals regions, each served by a court of appeals with from three to 15 sitting judges.

The courts of appeals review decisions of the district courts (trial courts with federal jurisdiction) within their areas. They are also empowered to review orders of the independent regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, in cases where the internal review mechanisms of the agencies have been exhausted and there still exists substantial disagreement over legal points.

Below the courts of appeals are the district courts. The 50 states are divided into 89 districts so that litigants may have a trial within easy reach. Additionally, there is one in the District of Columbia and one in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, not a state of the union, but part of the United States. From one to 27 judges sit in each of the district courts. Depending on case load, a judge from one district may temporarily sit in another district. Congress fixes the boundaries of the districts according to population, size and volume of work. Some of the smaller states constitute a district by themselves, while the larger states, such as New York, California and Texas, have four districts each.

Except in the District of Columbia, judges must be residents of the district in which they permanently serve. District courts hold their sessions at periodic intervals in different cities of the district.

Most cases and controversies heard by these courts involve federal offenses such as misuse of the mails, theft of federal property, and violations of pure food, banking and counterfeiting laws. These are the only federal courts where grand juries indict those accused of crimes, and juries decide the cases.