Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

"What's the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court?" + 6 other questions about federal courts

February 13, 2012 by Holly Munson


The organization of federal courts at a glance. Image via U.S. Courts/

Last week the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made headlines with its ruling that striking down Prop 8, the voter-approved measure banning same-sex marriage in California. A lot of people are wondering about the future of same-sex marriage in California and the nation. But some people might also be wondering... what exactly is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals?

The short answer is that it is a federal court that covers various cases in California and 10 other western states and territories. And the long answer... well, read on.

Wait, isn't the Supreme Court the only federal court?

No. In addition to the Supreme Court–the highest court in the land–we have more than 100 federal courts.

How did we get all these federal courts?

It all started with the Constitution. Article III–the section setting up the judicial branch of government and the shortest article in the Constitution–states that "the judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." In addition, Article I, the section setting up the legislative branch, states that the Congress may "constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court." A few years later, Judiciary Act of 1789 divided the country into regions for the organization of the lower federal courts.

How are the federal courts organized?

The United States and its territories are divided into 94 judicial districts, each of which has a trial court as well as a bankruptcy court. Each state has at least one judicial district. There are also two special trial courts with nationwide jurisdiction: the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Those 94 judicial districts are then organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has an appellate court, or court of appeals. These appellate courts hear appeals from the trial courts located within the circuit's region. There is also one federal circuit court to hear special cases, such as those decided by the previously mentioned special trial courts.

There are also a handful of other federal courts independent of the judicial branch, including military courts, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and the U.S. Tax Court.

And of course, at the very top is the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

How are the federal courts different from the state courts?

State courts generally handle most criminal cases and civil cases involving divorce and child custody, probate and inheritance, real estate, contract disputes, traffic violations and personal injury.

Federal courts generally handle cases involving the constitutionality of a law, federal laws and treaties, ambassadors or public ministers, disputes between two or more states, admiralty law and bankruptcy.

How does a case get to a federal court?

First, there has to be an actual case, or controversy–the court only deals with real, not hypothetical, questions. Second, the plaintiff must demonstrate that they have legal "standing," that they have been legally harmed somehow by the defendant. Third, the complaint must be one the Court has the authority to remedy. Finally, the case must fall within the federal (as opposed to the state) court's jurisdiction.

How did Prop 8 make its way to a federal court? Will Prop 8 go on to the Supreme Court?

The Christian Science Monitor summed it up nicely:

California has a long and complicated history regarding the issue of gay marriage. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the California Supreme Court in May 2008 ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in California. Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, was passed in November 2008. About two years later, a federal district judge ruled that Proposition 8 violated the equal protection provisions of the US Constitution. The decision was appealed, and the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on February 7, 2012 that the ban violated the Constitution.

What's next for Prop 8? The measure's proponents have promised to appeal last week's ruling, but they have a few options: they could appeal again to the Ninth Circuit Court, asking it to review the case "en banc"–with a full bench of 11 judges rather than the three-judge panel that gave the ruling last week. They could also appeal to the Supreme Court. So Prop 8 might go to the Supreme Court–or it might not.

Many disagree about the issue of same-sex marriage. But it's easy to agree that the Prop 8 case and the recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court provide an excellent reason to learn more about how our federal courts work.

Further Reading...

"Understanding the Federal Courts," United States Courts (HTML) (PDF)

Holly Munson is the Assistant Editor of Constitution Daily, the blog of the National Constitution Center.

Sign up for our email newsletter