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Researching the Law in the United States for LLM Students

Federal Court System

Federal courts hear cases where the United States is a party, cases alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law (federal question jurisdiction), and cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (diversity jurisdiction). Federal courts also have jurisdiction over bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases. 

The federal court system consists of three levels:

  • District Courts: trial courts
  • U.S. Courts of Appeal: cases decided in a district court can be appealed to a U.S. Court of Appeal
  • Supreme Court: the highest court in the United States


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State Court System

The structure of state court systems vary, but they generally follow a structure similar to the federal court system. For example, California's court system is structured as follows:

  • Trial courts (58 courts, one in each county of the state)
  • Courts of Appeal (6 appellate districts)
  • Supreme Court: the highest court in the state

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Court Rules

Court rules govern the conduct of business before a court. Court rules address a wide range of issues–a few examples include paper and font size for filings, grounds for appeal, time limitations, and available remedies. 

Federal Court Rules:

There are three major sets of federal rules that apply to all U.S. District Courts:

The Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure apply to all U.S. Circuit Courts. Each federal district and appellate court also has adopted a set of local rules that apply only in that court–for instance, the Local Civil Rules for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California applies only in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The Supreme Court follows its own special set of rules: Rules for the U.S. Supreme Court. You can find court rules on the court's website or in the United States Code in the Appendix to Title 28 (for FRCP, FRE, and Rules for the U.S. Supreme Court) or in the Appendix to Title 18 (for FRCrP). 

State Court Rules:

Almost all state courts have rules mirroring the major federal rules. For example, in California, the Judicial Council of California has adopted California's Rules of Court, which apply to all courts in California. California courts also adopt local rules that apply only to the court that has adopted those rules. You can find state court rules on the state's court website or within the state code.