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How is the federal court system structured?

The federal court system is separate from the local and state court systems. While federal courts do have to follow federal laws, they are structured differently and follow different rules than other courts.

At the federal level, the courts are divided into 94 districts. Oregon itself is home to three federal district courts, and the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland is one of them. In addition to the regular district courts, there are bankruptcy and other specialty courts. These courts only handle matters within their specialty. Other civil and criminal federal cases are handled in the district courts.

Above the district courts sit a total of 13 federal courts of appeal. While there are 94 districts, there are only 12 regional circuits. A 13th appeals court handles very specific issues related to specialized cases. Each region has an appeals court, which means that numerous states are served by the same appeals court. Because of this, appeals in the federal circuits are somewhat limited and they are most often decided based on filings and not oral arguments, due to both time constraints and geographic distance. Appeals are often usually heard first by a panel of three appeals judges from the circuit in question.

Above the circuit courts is the Supreme Court. Again, with only one final court, appeals to this level are controlled. The Supreme Court isn't required to hear most cases and must be petitioned to do so . The nine justices of the Supreme Court hear cases -- either through filings or oral arguments, depending on the situation -- and make a final decision.

As you can see, the federal court system is vast. It is also limited, though, particularly at the appellate levels. Because of this, if you engage in a federal appeals process, it's a good idea to work with a lawyer who can make every action count.

Source: Office of the United States Attorneys, "Introduction To The Federal Court System," accessed June 24, 2016

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