In the United States criminal justice system, there are two main court systems, the state and federal court system. Within these two systems, there are several levels of courts. The Federal Courts
The federal court system has three levels: the District Court, the Circuit Court, and the Supreme Court.
Federal District Courts: The lowest level of federal courts, where lawsuits are taken the first time and trials are held, is called the District Court level. District Courts hear every type of federal case, whether it is a civil or criminal case. Each district can have more judges, and it covers either the whole state or a part of it.
There are two groups of district court judges, "regular service" and "senior status." They have the same power and their jobs are secured for their entire lives (as stipulated under Article III Section I of the U.S. Constitution). The only difference is that senior judges, because they were on the bench for at least ten years they can take lighter caseloads and may choose what types of cases they hear.
District Court judges are often assisted by Magistrate Judges. Magistrates are not judges that have their place secured. But, they are auxiliary officers (appointed under Article I of the Constitution) who handle certain kinds of tasks sent by District Judges. Magistrates can take pleas of "not guilty" in felony criminal charges; they also frequently handle discovery disputes, misdemeanor trials, settlement negotiations, and hearings to calculate damages. Their orders can be appealed to the District Judge who initially had the case.
Besides the District Courts, there are a few trial level federal courts with limited subject-matter jurisdiction, among these are the Court of Claims and the Court of International Trade.
Federal Appeals Courts: The next level of federal courts is the Circuit Courts of Appeal. These courts hear appeals of decisions from the District Court in their geographical region. Like District Court Judges, Circuit Judges have their jobs secured for their entire lives.
Almost all District Court orders can be appealed to the Circuit Court although, with the exception of a few specific types of orders, like the ones granting or denying preliminary injunctions, the majority of orders cannot be appealed right away. Instead, parties have to wait for the case to be closed in the District Court, and afterwards raise all the appeals at a single time.
Circuit Court Judges sit in random panels of three judges for each case, unlike District Court Judges, who sit alone for their cases.
"Sitting by designation" is the process when, on occasion, the Chief Judge of a Circuit invites a District Court Judge or a judge from another circuit, to temporarily sit on a panel of 3 judges to hear one or more appeals. When sitting by designation, a District Court Judge may not review his own decisions that he made earlier.
The decisions of the Circuit Court are connected to the district courts within that circuit. This develops the uniformity of law in each circuit, even though the circuits might disagree strongly on points of law.
The Supreme Court: The highest level of federal courts is the United States Supreme Court. The Court hears appeals from the Circuits Courts, from the highest courts of each state, only if a federal issue is involved, or very rarely, from a District Court decision. The Court sometimes...