i. “Independent and necessary” ground: In fact, the Supreme Court may only hear those state cases in which the federal-question decision was necessary to the outcome. As the idea is usually put, the Supreme Court will not hear cases whose outcome rests on an “independent and adequate state ground.” For a more full discussion of when the Supreme Court can hear an appeal from a state court proceeding, see Emanuel on Constitutional Law.
2. The federal courts: There is a second, entirely distinct, set of courts in the U.S.: the federal judicial system. This set of courts has three levels: (1) district courts; (2) circuit courts of appeal; and (3) the U.S. Supreme Court.
a. District courts: Each state is divided into one or more “federal judicial districts.” Each district has at least one federal district court, and some states have multiple courts. (For example, New York has four judicial districts, some of which have district courts in multiple places, each representing a “division” of a district.) The federal district courts are the trial courts of the federal system.
b. Circuit courts of appeal: The federal judicial districts described in the prior paragraph are grouped into 13 “judicial circuits.” In each of these circuits, there is a “Court of Appeals.” The circuits are numbered First through Eleventh, plus the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit. The First through Eleventh each cover the district courts in three or more states. (For example, the Ninth Circuit covers all districts located in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam and Hawaii, and thus hears all appeals from federal district courts in any of these states.)
i. Appeal: Any litigant who loses in federal district court has a right to appeal to the Court of Appeals. Typically, an appeal is heard not by the entire Court of Appeals (which contains from 4-23 judges, depending on the circuit), but rather by a 3-judge panel of that circuit. (Occasionally, the entire set of judges in the circuit will re-consider a decision by a panel; in that case, the resulting decision is said to be “en banc.”)
c. Supreme Court: When a federal civil litigant loses in the Court of Appeals, she may petition the Supreme Court to hear the case. It is up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to “grant certiorari,” i.e., to hear the appeal. The Supreme Court is never required to hear an appeal; the Court exercises its discretion to hear the case only if four Justices vote to grant certiorari.
d. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: Procedure in the federal courts is mainly governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Changes in these Rules are proposed from time to time by the U.S. Supreme Court, and go into effect unless Congress specifically objects (which it rarely does).
C. Grounds for federal court jurisdiction: The jurisdiction of the federal court system is limited by the U.S. Constitution. In other words, it is not the case that the federal courts can hear any controversy they wish to hear. It is not even the case that Congress could, by passing a broad jurisdictional statute, empower the federal courts to hear any case they wish. Instead, the Constitution lists certain types of cases as to which the federal judicial power is deemed to exist, and only cases falling within that power may be heard by the federal system. (Furthermore, Congress can, and frequently has, cut back the federal judicial power to exclude cases that would be within the Constitution’s grant.) At present, there are two main kinds of civil cases that the federal district courts may hear: