You are here

Inside The Federal Courts

One of the Federal Judicial Center's duties is to teach federal court employees about how the courts work, how they are organized, and how they fit into the U.S. system of government. We developed this site as an easy reference to help court employees understand aspects of the federal courts outside of their specific responsibilities. We put it on our public website because it may also help students, the media, and the public learn more about the federal courts.

Click here to launch the Inside the Federal Courts eLearning program. Or, you can explore the individual sections using the links below.


This is an introduction to the course sections.


This is an overview of the course navigation.

Part 1: What the Federal Courts Do

This section answers a fundamental question: What is a court? In this country, there are federal courts and state courts. Here you'll learn how federal courts and state courts differ, what kinds of cases are tried in each, and the numbers of cases that each administers each year. You will learn about civil, criminal, and bankruptcy cases and the rules of procedure under which federal courts operate. Finally, at the end of the section you can take a quiz to test your knowledge of What the Federal Courts Do.

  • What is a court?
  • How is a federal court different from a state court?
  • What’s the difference between a civil case and a criminal case? 
  • What is a bankruptcy case?
  • Which courts handle more cases?
  • How do federal courts know what procedures to follow?

Part 2: How the Federal Courts Are Organized

In this section you will learn how the different kinds of federal courts fit together. We'll explain the relationship between the U.S. district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. You'll learn about special federal courts, such as the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Finally, you'll read about the work of federal judges and how they get appointed. 

Note: Readers interested in more detailed information about the creation and evolution of the federal courts can go to the Center's History of the Federal Judiciary site and click on "Courts of the Federal Judiciary."

  • How do the different kinds of courts fit together?
  • What other federal courts exist?
  • Federal judges and how they get appointed

Part 3: How Cases Move Through Federal Courts

In this section, you'll follow the path of a criminal case and a civil case brought before a district court, and you'll learn about the various forms of bankruptcy cases and how they progress through a bankruptcy court. You will learn how the appeals process works, how judges are assigned, and how cases get to the highest court in the federal system, the Supreme Court of the United States. We'll also discuss alternatives to litigation, such as mediation and arbitration. At the end, you can take a quiz to test your understanding of how cases move through federal courts.

  • Civil Cases
  • Criminal Cases
  • Bankruptcy Cases
  • Appeals

Part 4: Who Does What

In this section, you will learn about the roles and responsibilities of court employees and other participants in the legal process in the courtroom and outside the courtroom. 

In In the Courtroom you will learn what roles the judge, attorneys, parties, and witnesses play. You will be introduced to the courtroom deputy clerk, court reporter, court interpreter, and the United States marshal. 

In Outside the Courtroom you will be introduced to the judge's chambers staff and the staff of the clerk of court's office. You'll also meet the court's legal staff, pretrial and probation officers, and the U.S. trustee. You'll see how the court of appeals librarian contributes to the court's work. At the end of this section, you can take a quiz to test your knowledge of who does what.

  • In the courtroom
  • Outside the courtoom

Part 5: The Federal Courts and the Other Branches of Government

Here you can find out about the federal courts' role in the U.S. government and the legal authority under which the federal courts were created. This section describes how Congress and the executive branch interact with the federal courts. It also explains the concept of judicial independence and why it is important.

Where do the federal courts fit into the federal government?
What is the authority for the creation of federal courts?
How does Congress interact with the federal courts?
How does the Executive Branch interact with the federal courts?
What is judicial independence, and why is it important?

Part 6: Federal Court Governance and Administration

The Judicial Conference of the United States establishes national policies for the administration of the federal courts, and circuit judicial councils and circuit executives administer the courts on a regional basis. This section describes their work. It also explains the roles of four national agencies of judicial administration.

  • National
  • Regional
  • Local

Part 7: Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees

Judicial branch employees must maintain exceptionally high standards of conduct. Judges, their staffs, officials under judges’ control, and all other employees of the judiciary should strive to maintain the public’s confidence in the federal court system.

The Judicial Conference of the United States has adopted a code of conduct for federal judges and another for judicial employees.