Federal Court Hierarchy
An ordinary federal court case follows this path: District Court ---> Court of Appeals ---> Supreme Court (if granted).
federal district courts
This is where a federal court case starts. Federal district courts are the "trial courts." There are 94 of them around the nation. Each state has at least one federal district court, and some states have several (depending on the size of the state). It is not until a district court makes an "appealable ruling" that the case might reach the next level, the Circuit Court of Appeals.
Federal circuit courts of Appeals
This is the first level of appeal. There are 13 Circuit Courts of Appeals. 11 of them control control a region of several states (see map). The other two are in the District of Columbia (the DC Circuit and the Federal Circuit). Rulings made by a Circuit Court of Appeals create precedent in the whole region (big deal). This is the step right before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court often decides to take on case if there are at least two Circuit Courts of Appeals that disagree on the issue.
united states supreme court
This is the highest court in the nation. The Supreme Court gets around 7,000-8,000 of applications each term and it grants oral argument in about 80 of them. A ruling of the Supreme Court must be followed by all courts around the nation (both federal and state). State court cases can be appealed to the Supreme Court in addition to federal (as long as the case has been decided in the highest state court).
Here are some FAQs on the Supreme Court.