The federal court system that exists today has grown and developed over time. According to Article III of the Constitution, the judicial power of the United States resides in just one court, and that is the Supreme Court. It means this particular court is the first and the only one that is recognized by the Constitution even though there are many types of courts now.
As the nation grew, the framers of the court system understood that there could be a need to have more courts. Because of this need, the Constitution allowed Congress to create smaller types of courts on certain occasions. What this means is that Congress still has the power to form a court but also has the power to abolish it. The court system, however, will continue to evolve as the needs of the nation does so.
Today, there are three fundamental levels of the US Federal Courts:
The US Supreme Court
The US Courts of Appeals, which is comprised of 13 Circuits, specifically 12 Regional Courts, and one Federal Circuit
US Dist Courts, which is made up of 94 Dist Courts where each of them has a Bankruptcy Court, along with the Court of Federal Claims and a Court of International Trade
The US Supreme Court
The capital of the United States is Washington, DC and it is where this court resides. It remains to be the highest out of all the types of courts in the country and is the only court established by the nation’s Constitution. However, the Constitution does not talk about how the Court is organized. It also does not provide information about the qualifications of people holding seats on this court. The Constitution also does not explain or talk about other facts such as the number of justices on the court.
Based on the Judiciary Act of 1789, the court size was six in which there would be one Chief Justice, and the other five would be the Associate Justices. As time passed, the number grew, and there were as many as 10. Later on, the Judiciary Act of 1869 stated that the court should only have nine, which is still what holds up to this day.
How the Court Grants a Writ of Certiorari
Annually, there are about 10,000 petitions that the Court receives. However, there are only about 75 to 85 cases per year that the Court hears. This means most of the petitions it receives are denied.
A writ of certiorari will only be granted after four out of nine of the justices agree that a case has value. This method of deciding is known as the Rule of Four, which is used to issue the legal document known as the certiorari. In this legal document, the Court orders the lower court to send the case records, so that the justices could review them.
The majority of the cases that the Court accepts are appealed from the other types of courts, meaning they are mostly from the federal courts of appeal. The justices generally accept cases that they believe have an effect on the entire country and not just the people involved in the case. Their goal is to clarify issues that may have importance to as many people as possible, which is why the cases they normally take are the ones with a huge constitutional impact. The cases may also help answer significant legal questions that may involve the whole nation.
The justices of the Court also take cases that the other types of courts do not have an agreement over the interpretation of the law/s involved as well as cases where the lower courts may have a different interpretation of a law. There are instances where the lower courts have a varied decision on the cases, and this causes confusion, which is why the Court intervenes.
The Court is considered the court of last resort. This denotes that it has the power to make decisions and all the lower courts must obey the decision at all times. It is known as establishing a precedent, which is a legal example that should be followed in every case that may be similar in the future.
A precedent created by the Court is a decision that every other type of courts should follow across the country. It takes place after the Court took a case that involved an issue where differing opinions occurred in the lower courts. The precedent serves as a guarantee that laws are equally applied to everyone no matter where they are in the country.
It is important to remember that the Court only hears cases from other types of courts from other states when the appeal encompasses the US Constitution. What this means is that the person making the appeal has proven that his or her rights – as stated in the Bill of Rights – were not heard by the state. In other cases, the appeal of the person has shown that there has been some error in the lower court, leading to a negative effect on the due process rights. These restrictions show that most of the cases of the Court do not come from the state court but from the lower federal courts instead.
Courts of Appeals
The Courts of Appeals have a total of 13 circuit courts, which are 12 for regional and one more for the federal circuit. These courts were created by Congress in order to help the court of the last resort with its caseload. The Courts of Appeals were also established to hear the appeals of cases from the dist courts.
In these types of courts, they are actually not courts for trials, so they do not hear cases as their primary job. Instead, they first review the decisions made by the dist courts. Their job is to determine whether or not the decisions were correct and proper.
When appeals are made, the party that lost the case (both criminal and civil) from the federal district court will ask the appellate court to review the case and to provide judgment based on an issue of law.
To understand this type of court better, the word circuit should be explained. When the court of the last resort was created, it stayed in the US capital. However, the judges used to travel a circuit in different states, so that they could hear the cases. After the creation of the Courts of Appeals, the judges would still travel to the courts in their region or circuit whenever they needed it. For this reason, the courts have been called circuit court ever since.
The Regional Circuits
As mentioned, there are 12 regional circuits of the Courts of Appeals, and these are the most influential and most powerful courts in the country. In particular, the Ninth Circuit is considered very influential, especially because it covers 20% of the nation’s population. Currently, the First Circuit has the smallest number of judges, while the Ninth has the largest number. Compositions of the circuit are as follows:
DC Circuit in Washington
First Circuit in Boston, Massachusetts that comprises of the following states:
Second Circuit in New York City, New York with the following states:
Eastern, Northern, Western, and Southern districts of New York
Third Circuit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with the following states:
Eastern, Middle, and Western districts of Pennsylvania
Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia covering the following states:
Eastern, Western, and Middle Districts of North Carolina
Eastern and Western Districts of Virginia
Southern and Northern districts of West Virginia
Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, Louisiana with the following states covered:
Eastern, Middle, and Western Districts of Louisiana
Northern and Southern Districts of Mississippi
Eastern, Northern, Western, and Southern Districts of Texas
Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio with the following states:
Eastern and Western Districts of Kentucky
Eastern and Western districts of Michigan
Southern and Northern districts of Ohio
Eastern, Western, and Middle districts of Tennessee
Seventh Circuit in Chicago, Illinois with these states covered:
Central, Southern, and Northern districts of Illinois
Southern and Northern Districts of Indiana
Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin
Eighth Circuit in St. Louis, Missouri that includes the following states:
Southern and Northern districts of Iowa
Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas
Eastern and Western districts of Missouri
Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, California with coverage on the following areas:
Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Central Districts of California
Northern Mariana Islands
Eastern and Western districts of Washington
Tenth Circuit in Denver, Colorado that covers these states:
Northern, Western, and Eastern Districts of Oklahoma
Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, Georgia with the following states:
Florida’s Southern, Middle, and Northern districts
Middle, Northern, and Southern districts of Georgia
Middle, Southern, and Northern Districts of Alabama
When there is an appeal, the cases heard in the district court of all the states covered by the circuit court will be sent to the circuit where it belongs. For instance, appeals will be sent to the Eight Circuit US Court of Appeals if the cases were heard by the dist courts of Arkansas, Iowa, South and North Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska.
The Courts of Appeals also include the Federal Circuit, which has countrywide jurisdiction. It hears appeals regarding special cases, including those that involve patent laws decided by the Court of Federal Claims as well as the Court of International Trade. The Federal Circuit also includes the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. This court is headquartered in the nation’s capital.
Among all the types of Courts of Appeals, the Federal Circuit is the most unique because its jurisdiction is based on subject matter and not the geographic location of the appeal. It hears some appeals of the dist courts of the US, as well as some administrative agencies and those arising under specific statutes.
Overall, the US Circuit Courts of Appeals have a total of 179 circuit judges who work full-time. However, there are only three judges who hear one single case. Since the court of appeals hears the appeals from the other types of courts that are inferior to it, the decisions of the judges usually set a legal precedent in case of differing decisions.
The district courts of the United States are what are considered the trial courts of the current federal court system. It means that this is the court that hears and tries the federal cases. Witnesses will testify there, and it is also where federal juries will serve. All in all, there are 94 federal dist courts in the country.
Because the dist courts hold the original jurisdiction, this means that they are the ones that preside over the cases presented to them first. They hear both civil and criminal cases, which are defined as follows:
A criminal case is a proceeding which involves someone who breaks a federal law. Those who get arrested due to a criminal case are heard in a district court.
Meanwhile, a civil case is where a person believes that his or her rights have been violated. These rights are defined under the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. An example is when a person is suing the government or a certain government agent because the rights of that person have been violated.
The dist courts of the United States hear more than 300,000 cases per year. Initially, Congress created a single district court for every state of the country. However, the population grew and changed, which is why more courts were added. Here are some important facts about the districts and its types of courts:
In all the states in the country, there is at least one district. There are even some with four districts.
The District of Columbia, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam all have their own dist courts. Except for the District of Columbia, the other four all hear federal cases, which include cases involving bankruptcy.
Each district has a US bankruptcy court, which is a part of the district court itself.
Large cities have their own city court, which is also known as the municipal court, such as the one in New York City. A municipal court can handle misdemeanors and may include the traffic court. In the US, the traffic court is the specialized judicial procedure for cases of traffic ticketing.
In different states, a district court is called a superior court. California, Washington, and Maine are examples of jurisdictions in the US with a superior court.
Under the dist courts, there are other types of courts namely the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims. The Court of International Trade is responsible for addressing cases that involve customs and international trade laws.
On the other hand, the US Court of Federal Claims is the one that deals with claims for money compensation against the government of the United States. This is also the court that handles disputes over federal agreements or contracts, as well as unlawful possession of private properties that may have been performed by the federal government. In short, the US Court of Federal Claims tackles cases or claims that are against the United States itself.
As for the bankruptcy courts, these are separate units that are a part of the dist courts. All federal courts can handle bankruptcy cases, and they have jurisdiction over them. This means that the case cannot be filed in the court of the state. People, as well as businesses, may file for bankruptcy when their liabilities exceed their income and their ability to pay using their available assets. The judges in the bankruptcy courts serve a term of 14 years.
As a trial court, the district court of each state has a district judge who is tasked to try the case. There is a jury as well that decides the case. There are also magistrates court judges who provide assistance for the district judges particularly when it comes to the preparation of the cases for the trial procedure. The magistrate judges may also conduct trials for cases involving misdemeanor.
In 1968 Congress passed a law that established the position of the Magistrate Judge in the United States. Until now, these magistrates court judges serve as federal judges and re-given eight-year terms for their dist courts.
Typically, the magistrate judges manage preliminary criminal court subjects, including setting bail and dispensing search warrants. As mentioned, they also assist the judges of the dist courts with all kinds of cases that need to be handled, such as in small claims court. While there is no equivalent of a small claims court in the US court, the magistrate judges tackle certain matters including claims between private litigants.
Other Types of Courts
Aside from the types of courts mentioned above, there are still other types, such as those with limited jurisdiction. An example is a family court, which is a trial court that only deals with a specific case and that is related to disputes within families. A family court is usually presided over by a judge, and there is no jury.
Other types are known as legislative courts or Article I courts that were created by Congress. These types of courts do not possess the full judicial power or the authority to decide on the questions of Constitutional law and federal law. These courts also do not possess the power to hear claims based on the center of habeas corpus issues.
The following are the legislative or the Article I courts of the United States:
US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
This court was created in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan. In 1999, the court’s name was changed to US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims from its original name which was United States Court of Veterans Appeals. There are seven judges with two additional judges who work as part of a provisional expansion. Currently, the headquarters of the court is in Washington, DC but it is allowed to sit anywhere in the country.
The court is given the power of exclusive jurisdiction over decisions when it comes to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals or BVA. What it does is it reviews the decisions of the BVA based on the appeals of the people who believe that the decision is wrong.
US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
This court was established in 1952 and has ever since stayed headquartered in Washington, DC. It exercises appellate jurisdiction worldwide over the armed forces and its active members as well as other individuals who are bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The US Court of Appeals for Armed Forces addresses a variety of legal issues, such as criminal law, constitutional law, criminal court procedure, evidence, ethics, and administrative law. The decisions of this court in the mentioned issues are subject to review by the highest court of the US.
US Tax Court
The US Tax Court serves as a national forum for resolving disputes between the Internal Revenue Service and the taxpayers. It does so while considering the evidence of every case it handles while making sure that the Internal Revenue Code is interpreted correctly and properly. It is the court’s commitment to providing taxpayers with an appropriate place of trial and procedures of a trial that are simplified. Claimants often represent themselves, and the disputes usually involve small amounts of dollars.
As for the jurisdiction of the court, it includes the redetermination of transferee liability and the ability to make a declaratory judgment on certain cases. When the Commissioner of Internal Revenue has concluded that there is a tax deficiency, it is the right of the taxpayer to dispute the deficiency. It will be tried in the US Tax Court before the taxpayer will be ordered to pay the disputed amount if required by law.
Aside from the jurisdictions mentioned, the US Tax Court also has the authority to demand abatement of interest, regulate partnership items, and award costs for litigation and administration. The court also has the power to re-determine the classification of the worker and review particular actions on collections.
These are the types of courts under the US federal court system, which handle their respective cases based on the judicial system. There is a court of the first instance and its decision will be studied and may be revised by an appellate court. It all ends at the court of last resort, which can make the final decision based on the work and evidence provided by the lower courts.