The American judicial system is a complex and multifaceted entity, embodying a hierarchy of courts each with distinct roles and responsibilities. Two of the key types of courts within this system are the district courts and the appellate courts. They each play vital but distinctly different roles in the dispensation of justice. The primary difference between an appellate court and a district court is that an appellate court reviews the decisions of the lower courts, primarily focusing on the application and interpretation of the law, whereas a district court conducts the initial trials and makes determinations of fact.
District courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. These courts have jurisdiction over nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Three territories of the United States — the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands — have district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases.
Every day, across the nation, hundreds of people appear before district court judges in a variety of proceedings, including arraignments, bail hearings, trials, and sentencing hearings. It is in these courts that cases are first heard and judgments delivered. District courts are “fact-finding” courts, where both evidence and testimonies are evaluated to determine the factual basis of the case. Juries, overseen by a district judge, often decide these facts.
Appellate courts, also known as courts of appeal, serve a fundamentally different purpose in the judicial system. The most critical difference between an appellate court and a district court is that an appellate court does not conduct trials. Instead, appellate courts review the decisions made by district (trial) courts.
When a party is dissatisfied with the decision of a district court, they can appeal the decision to an appellate court. The appellate court then reviews the record of the trial proceedings in the lower court. They do not, however, reassess the facts of the case or hear new evidence or testimonies. Instead, the judges of the appellate court consider legal arguments about whether the trial was conducted fairly and in line with established legal principles.
The role of an appellate court is to ensure the law is correctly and consistently interpreted and applied. If they find that the law was misapplied, or the trial was unfair, they may overturn the decision of the district court, often remanding the case back to the district court for further proceedings. There are 13 appellate courts that sit below the U.S. Supreme Court, and they are divided geographically into 12 regional circuits, and a Federal Circuit.
In summary, the difference between an appellate court and a district court is primarily in their functions within the judicial system. While the district courts are the “fact-finding” courts where initial trials occur, appellate courts serve as reviewers of these decisions, focusing on the correct application and interpretation of law. This dual-tiered system allows for a robust legal process that both hears and evaluates the merits of a case (district courts), and then provides a mechanism for those decisions to be reviewed and evaluated for their legality and fairness (appellate courts).