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LRAW Research Spring 2025

Federal Case Law

Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the U.S. Supreme Court and gave Congress the power to create lower federal courts and to determine the types of cases they hear. Federal courts are responsible for interpreting federal statutes, federal regulations, and the United States Constitution, i.e., federal question jurisdiction (28 U.S.C § 1331). The U.S. Courts website lists the types of matters that federal courts hear as cases involving:

  • the constitutionality of a law;
  • laws and treaties of the United States;
  • ambassadors and public ministers;
  • disputes between two or more states;
  • admiralty law; 
  • bankruptcy; and,
  • habeas corpus issues.

Federal courts also apply state law in suits based on diversity jurisdiction, where the parties are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (28 U.S.C. § 1332).

By way of example, the whistleblower provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) provides a private right of action for employees to seek remedies for retaliatory actions taken against them for reporting fraud. It is a federal law codified in the United States Code at 18 U.S.C. § 1514A. An action under this statute could be filed in federal court pursuant to its federal question jurisdiction (28 U.S.C. § 1331).

To read more about the federal court system, visit the U.S. Courts website.

The Federal Court System

Like the court system in South Carolina and most other states, there are three levels to the federal court system:

  • trial courts called district courts; 
  • courts of appeals, organized by circuits; and,
  • the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Courts
Federal trial courts, known as district courts, hear both civil and criminal cases. There are 94 federal judicial districts, with at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
North Carolina has an Eastern, Middle, and Western district, while South Carolina has only one U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, organized by geographic divisions, with courthouses in most locations. 

Map of the United States.



Each district has a bankruptcy unit. There are two specialized trial courts with nationwide jurisdiction — the U.S. Court of International Trade, which hears cases involving international trade and customs issues, and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which deals with claims for damages against the United States.



U.S. Courts of Appeals
The federal district courts are divided into 13 circuits—12 regional Courts of Appeals, including the D.C. Circuit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  Each circuit has a United States Court of Appeals that hears appeals from the district courts and federal administrative agency decisions in its circuit. Decisions from the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, along with district court decisions from North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, are appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.


Map of the federal circuits from the U.S. Courts website.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals from the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. It also hears appeals of certain subject areas such as patents and trademarks.

The U.S. Courts website provides a map of the federal circuits, along with links to websites for the federal district courts, circuit courts of appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.





 The Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the federal system. Parties who wish to appeal a decision from a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or the highest court in a state may petition the U.S. Supreme Court by writ of certiorari to hear their case involving an important question of federal law or the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court has discretion over which writs will be granted.

The U.S. Supreme Court receives approximately 10,000 petitions for  writ of certiorari each year and hears about 75-80 cases.



Publication of Federal Cases

Federal court opinions that are selected for publication are first published as slip opinions. Then they are published in chronological order in reporters.

West, as part of its National Reporter System, publishes cases as follows:

  • Federal district (trial) court opinions in the Federal Supplement (F. Supp., F. Supp. 2d, F. Supp. 3d);
  • Federal circuit courts of appeals opinions in the Federal Reporter (F., F.2d, F.3d); and,
  • U.S. Supreme Court opinions in the Supreme Court Reporter (S.Ct.).
    The law library maintains a complete set of each.

Federal Supplement volumes, Federal Reporter volumes, and Supreme Court Reporter volumes. .

To each slip opinion that it publishes in a reporter, West adds a synopsis, which includes the background and holding of the case, and headnotes for each point of law covered. Each headnote is assigned at least one West Topic and Key Number.

LexisNexis publishes the United States Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition (L.Ed., L. Ed. 2d), in which it annotates each U.S. Supreme Court opinion with a summary, headnotes, and research references.

U.S. Supreme Court Reports, Lawyers' Edition volumes.

The Government Publishing Office (GPO) publishes United States Supreme Court opinions in the official United States Reports (U.S.). The opinions published in the U.S. Reports include a prefatory syllabus or summary before each opinion, but do not contain editorial enhancements, such as headnotesThe law library maintains a complete set of the U.S. Reports, which is required for proper Bluebook citation, if available. However, bound volumes of U.S. Reports are currently being published after a delay of several years.  

Volumes of U.S. Reports.

These "bound volumes" of the U.S. Reports are accessible online through the U.S. Supreme Court's website, starting with the year 1991. Like print publication, web publication of U.S. Reports is also subject to a delay of several years. Earlier volumes of the U.S. Reports dating back to volume 1 in 1754 are available online through the Library of Congress.

Topical & Specialized Reporters

West publishes topical reporters like the Federal Claims Reporter, Military Justice Reporter, West's Bankruptcy Reporter, and West's Education Law Reporter.

West also publishes specialized reporters, such as Federal Rules Decisions (F.R.D.), which collects federal district court opinions from 1941 to date concerning the Federal Rules of Civil and Criminal Procedure (also published in the Federal Supplement); and the Federal Appendix (F. App'x), which includes opinions issued by the federal circuit courts of appeals from 2001 to date that are NOT selected for publication in the Federal Reporter, i.e., unpublished opinions.