How Does the Federal Judicial System Work?

The role of the federal judicial system is to interpret and explain the laws of our nation. Because the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes concern a wide range of conduct (not just criminal acts), the purview of the federal courts covers a variety of matters, including criminal, civil, and bankruptcy cases. That said, this blog will explain the federal judicial system from a criminal defense perspective.

The Types of Criminal Cases That Go to Federal Court

If a person is accused of violating federal law, their case will be heard in federal court. A federal law is one passed by Congress.

The court will decide whether the accused has committed the alleged offense. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will then determine what punishments should be imposed.

Generally, a federal criminal case will first be heard in a U.S. district court. Depending on the outcome at trial, the defendant may appeal the decision to a U.S. circuit court. And finally, they can take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision.

The above is a brief overview of the cases heard in the different federal courts. Let us now expand on this discussion.

The Federal Judicial Process

As touched on above, the federal justice process begins when someone is accused of committing a federal crime. One of the first stages in the case is the pretrial hearing. During this proceeding, a U.S. district court judge will tell the defendant what charges they are facing.

The judge will also decide whether the defendant should remain behind bars while their case is pending or be released on bail. If the defendant is released, they will be subject to various conditions to ensure that they do not flee before their case concludes and that they return to court when scheduled.

Next, the defendant will be scheduled for an arraignment. They may be asked to enter a plea. It is possible that the U.S. attorney handling the case has made a deal with the defendant, requiring that the individual plead guilty in exchange for some of the charges being dropped or the sentence being reduced.

If the defendant pleads guilty, they will be sentenced. Sentencing can take place immediately but usually happens later – after the judge receives a presentence report.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, their case will be scheduled for trial. At trial, a U.S. attorney will present evidence to attempt to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the alleged offense. At the same time, the defense lawyer will present arguments to challenge the prosecutor's case.

A not guilty verdict at trial will result in the defendant being released, whereas a guilty verdict will lead to sentencing.

If the defendant is found guilty, the judge may consider the following factors to determine the sentence:

  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission's guidelines,
  • The evidence presented at court, and
  • The arguments presented by the U.S. attorney and defense lawyer

The types of punishments imposed can include, but are not limited to, prison time, fines, and/or victim restitution.

If a legal error affected the case's outcome, the defendant could appeal the district court's decision. The appellate court will decide whether the verdict stands or should be reversed and the matter sent back to the lower court for reconsideration.

The Difference Between State and Federal Courts

Reading about the criminal process at the federal level, you might have noticed that it is like that at the state level. State and federal courts have similar processes, mainly because every person accused of a crime has certain rights that must be protected. For instance, they are considered innocent until or unless proven guilty, they must receive a fair trial, and their Constitutional protections must not be infringed upon. That said, federal courts operate differently from state courts.

Some of the differences between state and federal courts include the following:

  • Jurisdiction: The term "jurisdiction" refers to the authority of a court to hear certain types of cases. For the most part, federal courts can only hear matters involving questions of the constitutionality of law or the violation of federal statutes. State courts can only hear cases in which state laws were violated. Most criminal cases are heard at the state level.
  • Prosecution: A U.S. Attorney represents the federal government in a federal case and can only bring prosecution in federal court. A state attorney represents the state government and can only bring prosecution in state court. Still, some matters can be prosecuted in state and federal court. This can happen when the alleged conduct violates both state and federal laws. Note that the double jeopardy clause does not apply because state and federal governments are considered separate sovereigns.
  • Judges: Federal judges are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. They hold their seat for life unless they are impeached due to misbehavior. State judges are selected for their role in several different ways: They can be elected, appointed for a limited term, or appointed for life.

The Different Federal Courts

The federal judicial system is made up of three levels of courts.

U.S. District Courts

The lowest federal court is the district court. In the U.S., there are 94 district courts, with at least one in each state (more populous states have multiple). Most criminal cases originate in district court.

District courts are referred to as trial courts because a judge will try the case, and a jury decides the outcome. In other words, a U.S. attorney and defense lawyer will present evidence that the judge and jury consider to determine whether the accused is guilty.

If the defendant is found guilty in district court, they can appeal the decision to a U.S. circuit court (also called a U.S. Court of Appeals or appellate court).

U.S. Courts of Appeals

There are 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals throughout the nation. Each has jurisdiction over a particular "circuit," which includes multiple states.

The jurisdiction of the federal appellate courts includes the following:

  • First Circuit (located in Boston, MA):
    • Maine
    • Massachusetts
    • New Hampshire
    • Rhode Island
    • Puerto Rico
  • Second Circuit (located in New York City)
    • Connecticut
    • New York
    • Vermont
  • Third Circuit (located in Philadelphia)
    • Pennsylvania
    • New Jersey
    • Delaware
  • Fourth Circuit (located in Richmond)
    • Maryland
    • Virginia
    • West Virginia
    • North Carolina
    • South Carolina
  • Fifth Circuit (located in New Orleans)
    • Texas
    • Louisiana
    • Mississippi
  • Sixth Circuit (located in Cincinnati)
    • Kentucky
    • Michigan
    • Ohio
    • Tennessee
  • Seventh Circuit (located in Chicago)
    • Illinois
    • Indiana
    • Wisconsin
  • Eighth Circuit (located in St. Louis and St. Paul)
    • North Dakota
    • South Dakota
    • Minnesota
    • Iowa
    • Nebraska
    • Missouri
    • Arkansas
  • Ninth Circuit (located in San Francisco, Portland, Pasadena, and Seattle)
    • Washington
    • Oregon
    • California
    • Arizona
    • Nevada
    • Idaho
    • Montana
  • Tenth Circuit (located in Denver)
    • Oklahoma
    • Kansas
    • New Mexico
    • Colorado
    • Wyoming
    • Utah
  • Eleventh Circuit (located in Atlanta)
    • Alabama
    • Florida
    • Georgia
  • District of Columbia Circuit (located in Washington D.C.)
    • District of Columbia
  • Federal Circuit (located in Washington D.C.)
    • Jurisdiction depends on the issue at hand

A U.S. circuit court differs from a district court in that it only handles appeals. Three judges will hear arguments about the alleged legal errors that occurred at trial. Typically, the arguments are presented in a written brief submitted by the appellant (the person who filed the appeal) and the appellee (the entity responding to the appeal).

In some situations, the appellate judges will schedule oral arguments where the attorneys present their cases in court and answer the judges' questions.

The U.S. Courts of Appeals are concerned only with whether the District Court misapplied the law or some other procedural error occurred that substantially impacted the case's outcome. The judges, therefore, do not hear new evidence and consider only the information contained in the trial court record.

An appeal at the federal level can result in:

  • The appellate court reversing the trial court's decision and sending the case back to the lower court, or
  • The appellate court upholding the lower court's decision, meaning the verdict and sentence remain.

If the appellate court sustains the conviction/punishment, the defendant can take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final review.

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest federal court. There is only one in the nation, and it hears only a select number of cases each year.

Nine justices serve in the Supreme Court – eight Associate Justices and one Chief Justice. They are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. Their appointment is for life.

As noted above, a case can be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court if a defendant is appealing a U.S. Circuit Court's judgment. However, that's not the only way a case can be presented to the Justices. They may also hear cases directly, meaning that the matter did not initially pass through a district or appellate court. Still, it is rare for the U.S. Supreme Court to get a case in this manner.

The other way the U.S. Supreme Court can hear a case is if a defendant is appealing a decision made by their state's highest court. The Supreme Court typically will decide on a case that originated at the state level only if it is a matter of the constitutionality of a law.

For an individual's case to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, they must file a 'writ of certiorari.' At least four of the nine justices must vote to grant the writ for the case to go before the Supreme Court. Of the thousands of requests the Supreme Court gets each year, only a hundred or so make it to this level.

When the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case, the decision is final. Usually, Supreme Court decisions have implications across the country and do not only affect the case under consideration.

Hire a Federal Crimes Attorney

The federal judicial system is very complex. If you have been accused of a federal crime, you need an attorney on your side with a firm grasp of these processes.

At Brockton D. Hunter P.A., our Minneapolis team has extensive legal experience and is familiar with the federal system. We can aggressively fight for you throughout your case.

Schedule a consultation by calling us at (612) 979-1112 or contacting us online.