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United States: legal resources: Courts


The main federal courts are organized in a hierarchy of three tiers:  United States District Courts at the trial level (ninety-four federal judicial districts, including at least one in every state); United States Courts of Appeals at the intermediate appellate level (thirteen appellate circuits); and the United States Supreme Court as the court of last resort.  There are also certain specialized courts at the trial level.  The Courts of Appeals and the District Courts have existed in their present form (with some variation in their names) only since 1891 and 1911 respectively.  They should not be confused with the lower federal courts that previously existed (called circuit courts and district courts) which were organized in a very different way.  The powers of the Supreme Court have been interpreted (an interpretation that is not seriously questioned) to include the power to declare acts of Congress and of the President unconstitutional.

The state courts are creations of the individual states, so there is variation from one state to another, but they tend to follow the same general pattern as the federal courts.  There is usually a hierarchy of three tiers, though in some states it is just two.  The names of the courts vary, but the highest court is usually called the Supreme Court (though in New York the Supreme Court is the trial court and the Court of Appeals is the highest court). 

Accepted abbreviations
Bluebook 10.4 and T7 tells you when an abbreviation of the court which decided the case will be a required element in the citation, and when not (eg when the court was a Supreme Court or when the name of the report series where the case was decided makes it clear). The table provides accepted abbreviations.

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