U.S. Courts and their opinions

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Courts are sources of law in that they offer written explanations of the decisions they make about the parties before them. These written decisions or “opinions” are primary authorities in that they affect those litigants, but they serve to interpret and construe the jurisdiction’s laws for future litigants.

There are courts at both of the (major) levels of government in the United States:

  • The federal court system is structured according to the United States Constitution and statutes, consisting of federal trial courts and appellate courts. The trial courts are called “district courts”—each covering a state or part of a state—and above them are circuit courts of appeal, each usually covering a group of states. See the figure for a breakdown of circuit-court jurisdictions. Appeals from circuit courts are to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the highest court or “court of last resort” in the United States. There are several other courts and court-like entities in the federal government. We’ll discuss them if and as they come up.

Map depicts jurisdictions of the federal circuit courts, showing which states and territories each covers.

  • The state court systems are structured according to their own constitutions, including trial courts and appellate courts. Each state has a court of last resort, the highest authority for interpreting that state’s laws. For example, in Minnesota, there are “district courts” (trial courts), a “court of appeals,” and a “supreme court” (its court of last resort). Georgia is similar, but calls its trial courts “superior courts.” In New York, trial courts are called “supreme courts,” there is an intermediate level for appeal, and the court of last resort is called the “New York State Court of Appeals.”
  • Texas has two courts of last resort, a “Supreme Court” for civil and juvenile matters and a “Court of Criminal Appeals” for criminal matters. Under them are 14 courts of appeals, which hear both civil and criminal appeals, and beneath them are thousands of district courts, county-level courts, justice courts, and municipal courts. See the figure below for more details. If you would like to learn more about the Texas judicial system, see the Texas Judicial Branch’s online brochure The Texas Judicial System.
Last Updated On December 11, 2018

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