There are five federal courts that have jurisdiction over disputes between taxpayers and the Government.
All tax cases are first tried in one of three lower level trial courts: the U.S. Tax Court, U.S. District Court, or U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Tax cases tried in all of these courts are later appealed to the U.S. Courts of Appeals. Although it is a national court, the U.S. Tax Court hears cases in different locations around the country, and appeals of Tax Court cases are heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Circuit in which the taxpayer resides. Appeals of cases from the U.S. District Courts are heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Circuit in which they sit. Appeals from cases decided by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims are heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
As with all federal cases, the court of last resort is the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Tax Court is a specialized court that hears only federal tax cases at the trial level. Before 1943, the U.S. Tax Court was called the Board of Tax Appeals (BTA).
Taxpayers appearing before the Tax Court are not required to pay the disputed tax amount before the case is heard (i.e., "deficiency procedure"). However, if unsuccessful, the taxpayer will owe interest on the tax liability in dispute. Jury trials are not offered.
The Tax Court issues three types of decisions: (2) summary decisions, (2) regular decisions, and (3) memorandum decisions.
Summary decisions are issued in "small" cases, which is an expedited procedure for individual taxpayers with less than $50,000 in tax liability. Summary decisions are not appealable, and thus are not considered precedent. There is no official or unofficial reporter for summary decisions.
Regular decisions are decisions involving new or unusual points of law, and they are decided by the entire court en banc. Regular decisions are officially published in the U.S. Tax Court Reports (T.C.), and for cases before 1942, in the U.S. Board of Tax Appeals Reports (B.T.A.). They are unofficially published in CCH's Tax Court Reporter and RIA's Tax Court Reports.
Memorandum decisions deal with established legal issues and hinge on interpretations of fact, and they are decided by the trial judge.
Memorandum Decisions (T.C. Memo.) are unofficially published in two competing publications, both confusingly titled Tax Court Memorandum Decisions (T.C.M.). Competing versions of T.C.M. (with different pagination schemes) are published by RIA and CCH. Star pagination for T.C.M. (RIA) is available on Checkpoint. Star pagination for T.C.M. (CCH) is available on Cheetah.
From 1928 to 1942, memorandum decisions were unofficially published in Prentice-Hall's Board of Tax Appeals Memorandum Decisions (B.T.A.M.).
In addition to publication in official case law reporters (e.g., Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement, U.S. Reports), tax cases heard in the federal district courts, federal circuit courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court are also unofficially published in two reporters focusing on federal tax cases: RIA's American Federal Tax Reports (AFTR) and CCH's United States Tax Cases (USTC). Opinions may be published in AFTR or USTC even if the case is not officially reported.