The Federal Courts are created by either the United States Constitution or by laws enacted by the United States Congress. There are lots of federal courts, some of which have little to do with criminal matters. For example, there are specialized federal courts for bankruptcy matters, for patent disputes, for immigration matters and other narrow areas. However, when it comes to criminal cases, there are really only three courts within the federal system where we appear.
The first federal court is called “District Court.” There are a total of 94 different District Courts within the federal judicial system. Some states, like Georgia, have more than one District. For example, in Georgia there are three Districts, the Northern (covering Atlanta and the northern one-third part of the state); the Middle (which is a large territory including Macon, Albany and Columbus); and the Southern District (which includes all areas south of the Middle District down to the Florida line, including Augusta, Savannah, and Valdosta). Other states only have a single judicial District. Also, there are federal District Courts in Puerto Rico, Washington DC; and some islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Each federal judicial District has various judges who handle criminal matters. Many people first encounter a Federal Magistrate Judge. These are “real judges” but they handle the initial phase of many criminal cases, such as bond hearings, pretrial matters and the like. The decisions by these Magistrate Judges can usually be appealed up to the next level, the District Judge. The District Judge is the person who generally conducts any trial and sentencing hearing in a federal criminal matter.
Besides Federal District and Magistrate Judges, each judicial District also has a United States Attorney, who is appointed by the President. The U.S. Attorney is the head prosecutor, who is in charge of all the other Assistant United States Attorneys (or, as we call them, “AUSA’s”). In many Districts, the U.S. Attorney’s office has many individual AUSA’s some of whom specialize in certain types of prosecutions. Other AUSA’s handle only appeals, while others are supervisory level prosecutors.
If one side or the other in a Federal criminal case is unhappy with the outcome, that side can sometimes appeal to a higher court. Within the federal courts those appeals go to one of 12 appellate “Circuits.” A Circuit Court of Appeals handles all the appeals from a certain geographic region. For example, all federal criminal matters arising in Georgia, Florida or Alabama all go to the same appellate court, which is called the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit courthouse is just a few blocks from our Atlanta office, and we have spent many hours submitting briefs to or arguing cases in that courthouse.
Finally, there is the highest court in the land; the United States Supreme Court. When one side or the other loses in the Court of Appeals, that party has the option of seeking review by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court takes only a small number of cases, but we have lots of experience filing the papers seeking review in that Court, and have even had the honor of being part of a team of two lawyers that actually won a federal criminal case in the highest court in the land.