Federal Court Structure

A map of PA Illustrating the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts

Federal courts only hear two types of cases. The rest must be heard in state courts.

  1. Cases involving federal law
  2. Both Plaintiff and Defendant are from different states AND the case is for more than $75,000

United States District Courts

The United States District Courts are the lowest level of federal courts. The United States brings both civil and criminal cases in this court. These courts do not handle bankruptcy cases.

Pennsylvania is divided into three districts. The Eastern District consists of Philadelphia County and the surrounding counties. The Middle District includes Williamsport, Harrisburg, Scranton and Wilkes Barre. The remainder of the Commonwealth falls within the Western District.

United States Court of Appeals

The United States Court of Appeals is the intermediate level court. Here, cases are either heard by a panel of three judges or argued through briefs. The Court of Appeals must hear every case appealed from the District Courts.

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the United States Virgin islands are in the Third Circuit, so the Third Circuit Court of Appeals hears cases from these areas.

United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation. The Supreme Court can hear appeals from the state Supreme Courts or the United States Court of Appeals, though it only hears less than 5% of appeals. If the Supreme Court does not hear a case, the verdict is final. For an appeal to be heard from a state Supreme Court, it must involve an issue of federal law.

The Supreme Court is located in Washington, D.C. and nine justices sit on the Court.

United States Bankruptcy Court

The United States has a separate court for Bankruptcy. Bankruptcies must be filed in federal court. The Bankruptcy Court is separate from the United States District Courts and the District Courts can send a bankruptcy case to Bankruptcy Court.

Each federal district has a Bankruptcy Court. An appeal from a Bankruptcy Court can be made to a District Court, state Bankruptcy Appeals Panel, or the United States Court of Appeals in that circuit.

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