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Circuit Riders: Federal Case Law

Basic Legal Research Guide

The Federal Court System

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. The U.S. Courts website lists the types of matters that federal courts hear.
  • 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.

In the Federal Laws and Federal Regulations sections of this guide, we used examples of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) statutes and regulations that were enacted to "ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education." Federal courts hear cases regarding the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by virtue of their federal question jurisdiction.‚Äč

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

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. 

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. 


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.

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 United States Supreme Court


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 (e.g., SC Supreme Court) 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.


Visit the U.S. Courts website to read more about the federal court system's role and structure. 

See the Weight of Authority section in the The U.S. Legal System unit of this guide for a discussion of how to determine if a case is mandatory or persuasive for a particular court.

Federal Case Reporters

West publishes federal cases in the following reporters:

  • U.S. District (trial) court opinions in the Federal Supplement (F. Supp., F. Supp. 2d, F. Supp. 3d);
  • U.S. 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.).

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


Volumes of U.S. Reports.

The Government Publishing Office (GPO) publishes U.S. Supreme Court opinions in the 
official United States Reports (U.S.). 

These "bound volumes" of the U.S. Reports from 1991 forward (currently 2013) are accessible online through the U.S.Supreme Court's website. Earlier volumes of the U.S. Reports dating back to volume 1 in 1754 are available online through the Library of Congress.



The law library maintains a complete print set of all federal case reporters.

Citing Federal Cases

The correct citation for federal cases has three basic parts:

  1. The name of the case, underlined or italicized;
  2. The published source (volume, reporter & page number) where the case may be found; and
  3. A parenthetical indicating the court and year of the decision.

For example:

U.S. District Court Opinion


U.S. Court of Appeals Opinion


US. Supreme Court Opinion



*You need only cite to the official U.S. Reports (U.S.) for Supreme Court opinions, if available. However, the U.S. Reports is several years behind, so feel free to cite to West's Supreme Court Reporter (S. Ct.).

The blue bullets in the citations above represent spaces.

The Bluebook legal citation guide requires abbreviations of many words used in case names.

For more information and examples of how to cite and abbreviate case names in federal court opinions, visit Cornell University Law School's online edition of Introduction to Basic Legal Citation by Peter Martin. There is also a link in the middle of its home page to a video on Citing Judicial Opinions.