The federal court system, explained


The seed of the sprawling
federal court system, is found in Article III of the
Constitution. It says this: “The judicial Power of the United
States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such
inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and
establish.” In other words, it was up to Congress to just fill
in the details. The first effort was the Judiciary Act of 1789.
It established an early version of the three-tiered system we
have today. The structure was worked and reworked through the
years. Circuits — geographic areas — were added, combined,
morphed, reorganized. Sometimes for political reasons like
limiting Southern influence during and after the Civil War.
Sometimes just for plain old practical reasons to manage an
increasing case workload. Two notable developments: In 1869,
Congress set the number of seats on the Supreme Court at nine,
which still holds; and in 1912, Congress established the federal
court structure we have today. The three main levels: district
courts (the trial court); circuit courts, which are the
first level of appeals; and the Supreme Court of the United
States, the final level of appeal. There are 94 district
courts, 13 circuit courts, and, of course, one Supreme Court.
All their members have lifetime appointments. Let’s jump into
the weeds for a second and work our way up the tier: District
courts are the trial courts for civil and criminal cases. Each
has at least one district judge, appointed by the president and
confirmed by the Senate. There are over 670 district court
judges. Then the circuit courts of appeal: A federal district
court’s decision can be appealed to a circuit court of appeals.
There are twelve federal circuits that divide the country
into different regions. Plus the Court of Appeals for the Federal
Circuit, which has jurisdiction over national issues–things
like trade and patents. Now the Supreme Court: It has the power
to decide appeals on all cases brought in federal court or in
state court if they deal with federal law. They choose about
80 cases a year from 7,000-8,000 petitions they get. Members of
the Supreme Court are referred to as “justices,” not judges.
Interesting detail also: The Constitution does not specify
qualifications for justices. They can be any age, have any
education, profession or native-born citizenship. A
justice doesn’t even have to be a lawyer. They don’t even have
to graduate law school, but historically, all have been
trained in the law. On top of deciding cases, justices also
oversee one or more circuits. They can be asked to set bond
for a defendant there, stop deportations from the circuit or
screen applications for stays of execution. There’s a lot
happening. It is a giant federal court system with thousands of
cases and hundreds of judges–all resting on one short
article in the Constitution.

1 Response

  1. J M says:

    only 80 cases a year?
    The Indian supreme court handles 8000 cases a year, and the number is only set to increase this year.
    learn, USA

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