The American judicial system comprises several court systems, broadly divided into the federal and state courts. District Courts and Circuit Courts (or Federal courts of appeals) are part of the federal court system. District courts are "lower" and have the responsibility for holding trials, while circuit courts are appellate courts that do not hold trials but only hear appeals for cases decided by the lower court.
The district court system is spread over 94 different geographical areas while the circuit court has 13 administrative regions covering the United States. Several different district courts may fall under the same appellate (circuit) court.
Note that some states (such as Florida and Texas) also have what they call "district courts" but this comparison is about the federal court system.
Two Different Court Systems
As federal cases move up through the judicial system, they are first heard at the District Court level, which handles general trials. In a district court case, only one judge is assigned to each case. There are 94 District Courts throughout the United States and the associated territories, including Guam, the Virgin Island, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The Circuit Court System is a smaller court system, encompassing only 13 different courts, though these are not limited to one single courtroom. In fact, many of the Circuit Court systems are spread over many buildings and large geographical areas. Each case in circuit court has a panel of three judges assigned. Circuit court judges rotate rotate through each of these regions in the "circuit", hence the reason they are called the Circuit Courts.
Roles of the Courts
The District Court and Circuit Court have very different jobs. The District Court for a particular geographic area hears general litigation issues as well as challenges to federal laws. These cases may include divorce cases, felonies and even issues that involve diversity and questions about the rights of voters. Once a decision has been reached by the judge, those cases may be appealed. District courts provide sentencing and issue penalties, while the Circuit Court does not.
If an appeal is filed, the case would move up to the Circuit Court level, which only hears appeals on federal cases. These cases may have to do with challenges to current laws and their constitutionality. In this case, the Circuit Court is one step below the Supreme Court. Additionally, the Supreme Court may send cases back to either the District Court or the Circuit Court for review.
Federal district courts have jurisdiction over federal questions (trials and cases interpreting federal law, or which involve federal statutes or crimes) and diversity (cases otherwise subject to jurisdiction in a state trial court but which are between litigants of different states and/or countries).
Significance of circuit courts
Circuit courts are very influential because they set legal precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court only accepts 1% of the cases that are submitted to it. So in the vast majority of cases, it is the circuit courts that ultimately set legal precedent when they decide appeals.
Where Does a Case Go First?
In all cases, litigation goes first to the District Court level before being passed on to the Circuit Court. The reason for this is because the Circuit Court only hears appeals. An initial decision made by a lower court judge must be made first before a case can be appealed.