Important Court History

Article III, section 1 states that “[t]he 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.” The judges presiding over such courts must be appointed by the president “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate” and hold their offices “during good behavior[.]” Their salaries cannot be reduced. Operating under its Article I, section 8 power to “constitute” federal tribunals, Congress has created several courts staffed by judges holding these protections who exercise the judicial power contemplated in Article III. These courts are commonly known as Article III or constitutional courts. The latter moniker can be confusing, as the Constitution does not oblige Congress to create any particular court and such courts routinely hear non-constitutional disputes.

Article III Courts

There are currently four Article III courts: The Supreme Court of the United States, the U.S. courts of appeals, the U.S. district courts and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Congress has abolished, combined or reorganized several other Article III courts over time. Such courts include the U.S. circuit courts, the Court of Claims, the U.S. Customs Court, and the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.

Since the mid-twentieth century, Congress has occasionally authorized temporary or specialized courts or adjudicatory bodies staffed by judges from existing Article III courts. Some of these bodies, such as the Special Railroad Court or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, are courts in their own right and call on judges to exercise a wide range of traditional judicial powers. Congress has also formed bodies, such as the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation or the Special Division for the Appointment of Independent Counsel, that are not designated as courts and typically serve more circumscribed roles.

Not all federal judges are Article III judges. Some non-Article III judges work as “adjuncts” to Article III tribunals. In 1968, for example, Congress authorized district courts to appoint magistrates (the title was changed to “magistrate judge” in 1990). These judges conduct many aspects of the pre-trial process and can preside over most non-felony trials, but are appointed to renewable four or eight year terms rather than holding their offices during good behavior.

Article I Courts

Since the earliest days of the republic, Congress has also created separate Article I or legislative courts. This nomenclature can be confusing as Article I does not specifically authorize these courts and they do not “legislate” in any traditional sense of the word. These courts range from independent federal tribunals staffed with judges who do are not subject to the tenure and salary protection of Article III, such as the courts of the United States’ territories and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, to panels organized under the aegis of federal agencies. Though the adjudicators in some bodies belonging to this latter group are called judges, their courts are not commonly understood to fall under the umbrella of the judicial branch. Unlike other Article I judges (including bankruptcy, territorial and magistrate judges), for example, they are not administered by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts or governed by the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The distinction between Article I and Article III judges was often fluid, particularly as the federal government took on an increasingly broad set of regulatory responsibilities in the first half of the twentieth century. Some courts, such as the Court of Claims and U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, changed status as a result of the interplay between Congress and the Supreme Court during this period. In other instances, Congress has changed the jurisdiction of courts or modified the protections accorded their judges to convert legislative courts into constitutional tribunals. The U.S. Customs Court, for example, slowly evolved from a primarily administrative body known as the Board of General Appraisers to an Article III court over the course of sixty-six years.

Other Federal Courts

Since the nation’s founding, the United States Congress has created a wide variety of federal courts. These courts have differed in the scope and subject matter of their assigned duties as well as the method of appointment and term of office of their judges. Some of these courts, for example the U.S. Court of International Trade, have had judges appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve during good behavior pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Others, like the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, have had judges appointed in the same manner but to a limited term of years. Still other courts, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, have been staffed with existing judges of the U.S. district courts and U.S. courts of appeals, designated by the Chief Justice of the United States to serve for limited terms. The territorial courts of the United States have had judges appointed by the president as well as judges appointed by territorial governors, and the terms of service of their judges have varied as well. While the territorial courts and the courts of the District of Columbia have had jurisdiction based primarily on geography, many other federal courts have had duties defined by subject matter. The subjects of such jurisdiction have covered a wide range, including, to name only a few examples, monetary claims against the U.S. government, international trade, customs and tariffs, military discipline, taxation, and work related to the functions of various executive branch agencies.

Other Agencies

Federal courts have long depended on bodies outside the judicial branch for important aspects of their work. Department of Justice attorneys, for example, are said to be “officers of the court,” but belong to an executive agency headed by the Attorney General, who serves at the pleasure of the president of the United States. Likewise, for eighty-five of the first eighty-six years of American history, federal courts did not have jurisdiction over cases arising under federal law and most such cases were heard by state courts subject to Supreme Court review. Despite Article VI’s command that “judges in every state shall be bound” by federal law, however, few, if any, nineteenth century scholars or lawyers included such state courts in the federal judicial branch by dint of this work.

Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts

The jurisdiction of the federal courts has been defined by the Constitution, congressional statutes, and decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. Article III provides that the judicial power “shall extend” to nine types of “cases” and “controversies”: all cases in law and equity arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States; all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls; all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; controversies to which the United States is a party; controversies between two or more states; controversies between a state and citizens of another state; controversies between citizens of different states; controversies between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states; and controversies between a state or its citizens and foreign states, citizens, or subjects. The Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over cases affecting ambassadors and public ministers and cases in which a state is a party, leaving the remainder of cases within the judicial power to the Court's appellate jurisdiction, with “such exceptions, and under such regulations as the Congress shall make.”

Article III of the Constitution left for the Congress to determine the distribution of federal jurisdiction within a system of federal courts and between the federal and state courts. The Judiciary Act of 1789 provided for cases to enter a federal court through an original filing, through removal of a case originally filed in state court, and through an appeal from the highest court of a state to the Supreme Court of the United States. Over the past two centuries, Congress has passed numerous statutes redefining the jurisdiction of the federal courts within the limits set by the Constitution. Throughout its history, the Supreme Court in its decisions has established additional rules and doctrines governing federal court jurisdiction.

Federal Judicial Circuits

Since the inauguration of the federal government, judicial circuits have provided geographical and administrative structure for the federal court system. For more than a century, the circuits functioned primarily as a way of assigning the justices and, after 1869, the circuit judges to service on the trial courts. The circuits and their courts embodied the federal character of the judicial system, connecting trial courts in districts that conformed to state borders and were governed by local legal procedures with a Supreme Court that had final jurisdiction over all of the nation's courts.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 arranged the judicial districts of the eleven existing states into three circuits, the Eastern, the Middle, and the Southern, and provided that justices of the Supreme Court would serve on the U.S. circuit courts that convened in the districts within a particular circuit. Congress regularly expanded and reorganized the system of judicial circuits during the first 70 years of the federal government. The number of circuits increased to six in 1801, seven in 1807, nine in 1837, and ten in 1855. Congress made even more frequent changes in the arrangement of states within the circuits in order to incorporate new states and to accommodate the demanding travel schedules of the Supreme Court justices. Occasionally entire states or districts within a state were omitted from the circuits because justices could not regularly attend courts far from established transportation routes. Only in 1889 was every district included within a circuit. With one exception in the mid-nineteenth century, the circuits have consisted of adjoining states.

In 1866 Congress reorganized the states into nine circuits and established the geographical outline that has remained unchanged except for the inclusion of new states within existing circuits and the division of two circuits. In 1929, Congress divided the Eighth Circuit to create a Tenth Circuit, and in 1980 an Eleventh Circuit was established to include three states formerly part of the Fifth Circuit. The act establishing the circuit courts of appeals in 1891 gave the circuits a new jurisdictional role at the same time that reliance on the existing circuit organization gave the judiciary's principal appellate courts a regional identity. (The Federal Circuit, established in 1982, is the only circuit defined exclusively by its jurisdiction.) In the twentieth century, the circuits have become increasingly important for the administrative organization of the federal courts. Representation on the Judicial Conference and its predecessor, the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, has been allocated by circuit. The circuit judicial councils established in 1939 exercise administrative authority over all the federal courts within a circuit, and the circuit judicial conferences provide a forum for judges and lawyers to discuss the administration of federal justice within a circuit.