About the Federal Courts

The Web site for the federal court system hosts a lot of information about the federal courts. On that page you will find an overview of the entire federal court system. For information on federal court proceedings, see our page with information about federal court rules. To find a federal court's Web site, use this directory of federal courts.

The federal courts system is divided into 94 separate judicial districts. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico each have at least one federal judicial district.

These 94 judicial districts are then organized into 12 separate regional circuits, each of which has one federal court of appeals. The U.S. Courts site has this map showing the 12 regional circuits and the courts that make up each circuit.

The highest court in the U.S. federal court system is the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, at its discretion and within certain guidelines, hears a limited amount of cases during each of its terms.

Courts of Special Jurisdiction

Apart from the federal courts already mentioned, the federal court system also includes various courts of special jurisdiction. Nearly all of the 94 judicial districts also have a dedicated bankruptcy court to handle bankruptcy matters.

At the trial court level, there is also the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The Court of International Trade handles international trade and customs issues while the Court of Federal Claims addresses certain types of claims against the federal government (e.g., disputes over federal contracts, monetary damage claims against the U.S.).

At the appellate level, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit hears cases on appeal from the Court of International Trade, the Court of Federal Claims, and other special cases (e.g., certain cases involving patent law).

For detailed information on these and other federal courts of special jurisdiction, the U.S. Courts make available this page on Understanding the Federal Courts.

Obtaining Court Records

The federal court system is open to the public. In general, court records are made available to the public through the office of the court clerk. If you are interested in obtaining court records, we suggest you first gather as much information about the case as you can and then contact the office of the court clerk for instructions on how to proceed. Most courts set per-page fees if you request photocopies.

Many federal courts publish their opinions on the court's Web site. To access recently issued opinions, use this listing of federal courts to locate a specific court's Web site. At the court's Web site you may be able to find recently issued or notable opinions.

Also consider using PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) to locate court records on the Web. In an effort to provide centralized access to documents filed in federal district, appellate, and bankruptcy courts, PACER allows the public to search through and obtain case and docket information. Note that there are fees associated with the use of PACER.

page last updated: 1 Mar 2013 8:57 AM