U.S. Government Judicial Branch

supreme court

The Judicial Branch of the U.S. Government is made up of the federal court system. The United States Supreme Court is the nation’s highest court, followed by the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. District Courts. These courts decide the meanings of laws, how they are applied, and whether they were broken. Lower federal courts include the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Tax Court, United States Court of International Trade, United States Court of Federal Claims, United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Supreme Court | U.S. Court of Appeals | U.S. District Courts


The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in America. The court is made up of one chief justice and eight associate judges. There have been 17 chief justices in the court’s history including John Jay, John Marshall, and William H. Taft. All Supreme Court Justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Justices of the Supreme Court generally serve life tenures. Thousands of cases are sent to the Supreme Court each year, but only 80-100 are heard. Selected cases are those that challenge the meanings of parts of the U.S. Constitution.

The United States Supreme Court usually serves as an appellate court, which means it hears appeals from lower courts. It has heard many landmark cases including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), which made segregation in America’s schools illegal. In rare instances, cases originate in the Supreme Court such as when two states have a dispute with each other, or when the United States government has a dispute with a state.


The United States Court of Appeals decides cases appealed from the District Courts. There are thirteen such courts in America, each serving a geographic region as illustrated in the map above. Court twelve is known as the DC circuit and the thirteenth is the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. It hears appeals from specialized trial courts such as those focusing on international trade and Federal claims.


The United States District Courts are the trial courts of the U.S. Federal Court system. Both criminal and civil trials are filed in District Courts. The juries of District Courts (the group of unbiased individuals assigned to decide on the case) are made up of regular citizens called for jury duty on a case-by-case basis. At some point in their lives, most adult U.S. citizens will be called for jury duty. There are 94 District Courts in America. District Courts are usually named for their geographic location such as “U.S. District Court – Western District of Pennsylvania.”

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