In the United States there are two distinct systems of courts, federal and state. Each is supreme in its own sphere, but if a matter simultaneously affects the states and the federal government, the federal courts have the decisive power. The district court is the lowest federal court. Each state has at least one federal district, and some of the more populous states contain as many as four districts. There are 11 circuit courts of appeals (each with jurisdiction over a defined territory) and a court of appeals for the District of Columbia; these hear appeals from the district courts. There are, in addition, various specialized federal courts, including the Tax Court and the federal Court of Claims. Heading the federal court system is the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court systems of the states vary to some degree. At the bottom of a typical structure are local courts that have authority only in specific matters and jurisdictions (e.g., court of the justice of the peace, police court, and court of probate). County courts, or the equivalent, exercising general criminal and civil jurisdiction, are on the next level. All states have a highest court of appeals, and some also have intermediate appellate courts. In a few states separate courts of equity persist.
See court system in the United States for a fuller discussion of this topic.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.