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Federal Courts

Last Updated: 2006

Article III of the U.S. Constitution authorizes federal courts when it provides that “the judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court and such inferior Courts as Congress shall from time to time ordain and establish.” The federal judicial system so authorized has grown from a 6-member Supreme Court and 13 lower-court federal judges in 11 states and territories in 1789 to a judiciary of about 1,700 judges in 94 district courts (each of which has within it a bankruptcy court), 12 regional and 1 national courts of appeals, and the 9-member Supreme Court of the United States.

The federal district and appellate courts do not constitute all the “courts” created by the federal government. What distinguishes the courts of the judicial branch of government—commonly called “the federal courts”—is that they exercise, to repeat the phrase in Article III, “the judicial power of the United States.” Congress has created other courts to help it implement the legislative powers granted it by Article I of the Constitution. Those “Article I courts” include, for example, a court to hear tax cases, courts within the armed services, courts to hear cases involving immigrants, and bodies of “administrative law judges” within federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration. Although these courts may look somewhat like Article III courts, they are not part of the judicial branch. Executive branch officials may review the decisions of some Article I courts, followed in some cases by review by Article III courts. Article III courts review the decisions of other Article I courts directly.


Most judicial business in the United States is done, not in the courts established by the federal government, but rather in the courts established by each of the states. At the start of the twenty-first century, compared to the roughly 1,700 federal judges, there were almost 30,000 state judges, a rough indication of the comparative workloads of the federal and state courts. In essence, legal controversies in the United States are the province of state courts unless Congress has vested jurisdiction of those controversies in the federal courts. The Constitution, in Article III, Section 2, tells Congress which disputes it may assign to the federal courts.

Federal jurisdiction is sufficiently complex as to merit its own textbooks, law school courses, and a steady stream of litigation. The following are the basic elements of federal court jurisdiction.

Cases in which the U.S. government is a party: federal courts exercise exclusive jurisdiction over prosecutions under federal criminal statutes, which are brought by attorneys of the U.S. Department of Justice, and civil actions to which the U.S. government is a party.

Civil cases involving provisions of the U.S. Constitution and federal laws and treaties: jurisdiction over civil actions under federal statutes is exclusively federal in some but not all cases. This exclusive jurisdiction includes but is hardly limited to so-called federal specialties, such as bankruptcy, patent and copyright, and admiralty and maritime cases. In some areas, both state and federal courts may hear cases involving federal law. For example, a federal law makes railroads responsible for injuries suffered by their employees while working for the railroad; however, the law permits such employees to claim violation of these federal statutory rights by bringing suit in either state or federal court. As a general rule, if a person sues someone in state court and the suit claims violation of a federal right, the defendant may request that the case be transferred to federal court (in legal parlance, the defendant “removes” the case to federal court).

In all cases—civil and criminal—state courts must observe federal law, such as the rights of criminal defendants established by the U.S. Constitution. Article VI of the Constitution makes clear that the Constitution, laws enacted by Congress, and treaties are “the supreme Law of the Land,” and state judges are obliged to follow them notwithstanding any contrary state laws. This does not mean that a court may not enforce a state law that is different in some way from a federal law. The court may enforce the state law as long as that law does not violate the federal law.

Civil cases under state law between citizens of different states or suits where an alien is a part: The federal courts’ “diversity of citizenship” jurisdiction allows litigants in civil cases that involve citizens of different states to bring their cases in, or remove them to, federal court, even if they involve no matter of federal law. For example, if a citizen of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in Wisconsin state court against a citizen of Illinois over the Milwaukee automobile accident in which they were involved, the Illinois citizen might wish to remove the case to federal court under the diversity of citizenship jurisdiction. There are various requirements for invoking that jurisdiction; for example, the amount of money in dispute must exceed a minimum amount set by federal statute.

Disputes between two states: When states sue each other—a rare occurrence—the case goes directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which usually appoints a “special master” to investigate the matter for it. Such a suit may arise, for example, over disputes over state boundaries and access to water in the disputed land.

The Supreme Court, of course, is the final appellate court for cases involving the federal constitution and federal laws. Litigants in cases presenting federal questions decided either by the federal courts of appeals or the state supreme courts may ask the Supreme Court to review those decisions. Other federal courts may also review state court decisions, however. For example, individuals convicted in state court, with their convictions upheld by the highest court of the state, may, in limited circumstances, file actions in federal trial court, called habeas corpus petitions, asking a federal judge to review the decisions of the state courts. The federal judge’s decision may then be appealed to the federal appellate courts.


The structure of the federal judiciary is basically a matter for Congress to determine. The Constitution says nothing on the subject other than that there will be a supreme court and may be other federal courts if Congress wishes to create them. In fact, when the Constitution was adopted, there was strong sentiment among many citizens who were leery of the new government that Congress should create no lower federal courts and leave all cases to the state courts.

Over the years, Congress has created a federal judicial system with the following elements. First, it has divided the country into ninety-four federal judicial districts and created in each district a U.S. district court—the chief federal trial court. Trial courts decide the facts in dispute in a case and apply the law to those facts. Most cases are actually resolved after conferences between the lawyers (and sometimes the judge) without the need for a trial.

The judges of the district court are (1) district judges, who exercise full judicial power; (2) bankruptcy judges, who constitute a unit of the district court (the federal bankruptcy court) and decide bankruptcy cases referred to them by the district judges; and (3) magistrate judges, who perform work assigned to them by the district judges, within statutory limits.

No district’s boundary crosses state lines (with one small exception—to keep Yellowstone National Park wholly within a single judicial district). For some districts, the boundaries are the state lines; the federal judicial district of New Mexico, for example, is the entire state. Other states have several judicial districts; Congress has divided New York, for example, into four judicial districts. Congress also specifies the number of federal district judgeships in each district (and the number of bankruptcy judgeships as well). The number of district judgeships ranges from two to almost thirty. In the early twenty-first century, federal district courts disposed of around 300,000 cases per year, most of them civil cases.

Each district is within one of twelve regional circuits. Within each circuit is a court of appeals, which hears appeals from the district courts of the circuit. Each circuit but one, the District of Columbia circuit, embraces at least 3 states’ federal judicial districts. Just as Congress specifies the number of judgeships in each district court, it specifies the number of judgeships for each court of appeals, ranging roughly between ten and thirty. In addition to the twelve regional circuits, Congress has created the federal circuit, whose court of appeals has a nationwide jurisdiction over appeals in certain areas, including charges of patent infringement and disputes over customs appealed to it from a special Article III court, the Court of International Trade. The courts of appeals dispose of well less than 100,000 cases per year.

The nine-member Supreme Court in Washington hears appeals from the federal courts of appeals and from the state supreme courts in cases involving federal law. Congress has provided the Supreme Court, though, great discretion as to the cases it will decide. Each year the Court is asked to hear many more cases than it decides. From the late 1990s into the next decade, the Court was actually deciding well under 100 cases per year, although the number of cases presented to it each year approached 10,000. For the most part, the Court selects for review cases that allow it to resolve conflicting interpretations of federal law by the federal appellate courts or state supreme courts, or to give national resolution to important legal questions (and to important political questions that have a strong legal component).


The Constitution and federal laws are almost totally silent on the manner of selecting federal district judges, courts of appeals judges, and Supreme Court justices. The Constitution authorizes the president to nominate members of the Supreme Court and, pursuant to a constitutional provision, Congress has directed that the president nominate district judges and courts of appeals judges. If the Senate approves the president’s nominees, they are appointed as justices or judges. The selection process for federal judges is overtly dependent on partisan politics; roughly nine out of every ten judges appointed by any president are at least nominal members of the president’s political party.

Despite this fact, federal judges are generally regarded as of very high caliber. For one thing, the Justice Department and the White House conduct thorough investigations of potential nominees, and the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts an investigation of the nominee once received from the president. Various other groups, including a committee of the American Bar Association, weigh in with comments on nominees’ credentials.

Moreover, judges appointed by the president have very strong job security, which encourages them to decide cases according to the facts and laws rather than to favor those who appointed them. Article III of the Constitution, in order to promote the independent exercise of “the judicial power of the United States,” provides that the judges who exercise it may serve “during good Behaviour,” which is essentially for life. They may be removed from office only by impeachment in the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate. In the history of the United States through 2005, the House has impeached thirteen judges; the Senate has convicted seven and acquitted four, and two resigned.

About half the federal judges, however, are not presidentially appointed, life-tenured judges but are instead appointed by other judges for fixed terms. Bankruptcy judges are selected by the courts of appeals of their respective circuits and serve fourteen-year terms. Magistrate judges are selected for eight-year terms by the district judges of their respective districts. These limited terms are not inconsistent with Article III’s promise of judicial independence to those who exercise the judicial power of the United States. That is because bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges are not ultimately responsible for the exercise of that power. Instead, these term-limited judges decide matters referred to them by judges who do exercise that power and who may change the term-limited judges’ decisions before they become final.


In many countries, the executive branch of government is responsible for the administration of the judicial branch. In such countries, the department of justice or its equivalent determines how much money to spend for the courts’ operations and how to spend it on personnel, acquire equipment, and similar matters. In the United States, the general view—at least since the middle of the twentieth century—has been that this situation creates inevitable conflicts of interest because while justice department officials are deciding how much money to allocate to judges for administrative support, other officials of that same department are seeking favorable judicial decisions from the judges. That creates a risk either that officials will punish judges for unfavorable decisions or that judges will make decisions favorable to the government to curry favor with those who hold the judicial purse strings. Even if the risk is not great, the appearance of a conflict could be damaging.

To avoid that situation in the federal courts, Congress has created the Judicial Conference of the United States, comprising the chief judges of each federal court of appeals, a district judge elected from each regional circuit, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The chief justice presides over the Conference, which meets twice a year and works through a system of committees to determine how much money to seek each year from Congress and how to administer the funds provided, including attendant matters such as personnel regulations and financial management procedures. The Conference also develops rules of procedure to govern the processing of cases in federal courts, and comments on legislation that may affect the operation of the courts. Although having Congress fund the courts and oversee their operations might also create a conflict of interest, the general view is that, in a republic, it is better for the legislature than the executive to decide these matters. Moreover, it would be impractical and unwise to allow judges to draw as much money from the treasury as they wish—the legislature is the obvious source. The important point, though, is that the judicial branches in the United States deal directly with their respective legislatures for funding rather than relying on the executive branch to do so on their behalf.

The Conference is assisted by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which carries out its many administrative duties under the Conference’s supervision. The Federal Judicial Center, a separate agency within the judicial branch, is responsible for the continuing education of judges and supporting personnel of the courts, and for research on such matters as the impact of new policies and procedures. Congress created both agencies at the request of the Judicial Conference.

In addition to these national bodies, councils of judges in each regional circuit see to administrative matters within the circuit. They also receive complaints from citizens about whether federal judges have engaged in misconduct or are unable to perform their duties.

Substantial administrative discretion resides as well in the individual federal courts across the country. In each district court and court of appeals, the judges are supported by court managers and their staffs who assist in the processing of cases and the management of court personnel. For the roughly 1,700 federal judges nationwide, there are about 30,000 supporting personnel.

SEE ALSO: Diversity of Citizenship JurisdictionState CourtsSuits between StatesSupreme Court of the United States