The legal system can be confusing, and the different courts involved have a part in causing the confusion. The basics of the federal system revolve around the idea of jurisdiction – the power of a specific court to hear a case. All courts have some jurisdiction, but many are considered “limited” in their jurisdiction, meaning that they can only hear cases that fall within a very specific set of requirements.
The lowest federal courts are generally the District Courts, although there are also special courts that hear military cases, others that hear veterans issues, and others that hear tax and trade issues. The District Courts can hear claims that belong in federal court either because the issue is federal in nature (i.e., it falls under federal law) or that cross state boundaries (i.e., the two people in the case live in different states).
The next rung of courts includes the Courts of Appeals, which, as their name implies, have the authority to hear cases that are appeals from the District Courts below them.
Appeals from the Courts of Appeal can request review by the United States Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court does not have to accept the case. The person challenging the Appeals Court decision must submit a Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court, which is basically a way to ask permission for the Court to hear the case.
Jurisdictional issues can be very complex, and this is the most bare-bones explanation possible for how the hierarchy works. So remember that if you have a question about the hierarchy of the courts, or about where you should file your case, talk to an experienced attorney.
This information is not intended to be legal advice.