Structure of the Federal Judiciary

Article III

The federal judicial branch is described in Article III of the Constitution: “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.” (U.S. Const. art. III, § 1, cl. 1. ) The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. In the federal court system’s present form, 13 courts of appeals and 94 district courts sit below the Supreme Court. Judges and justices appointed to Article III courts serve for life.


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The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court sits in Washington, D.C. and hears appeals from the federal courts of appeal as well as from state supreme courts. Over the years, various Acts of Congress have altered the number of seats on the Supreme Court, from a low of five to a high of 10. In the 1860s the number of seats on the Court was fixed at nine. Today the members of the Court are the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices.

Article III, Section II of the Constitution establishes the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The Court has original jurisdiction over certain cases, e.g., suits between two or more states and/or cases involving ambassadors and other public ministers. The Court has appellate jurisdiction on almost any other case that involves a point of constitutional and/or federal law. Some examples include cases to which the United States is a party, cases involving Treaties, and cases involving ships on the high seas and navigable waterways.


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The Courts of Appeals

There are 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals which sit below the U.S. Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate courts’ task is to determine whether the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts cases are heard by panels of three judges. Appeals cases do not hear witnesses and do not use a jury.

Each regional court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.


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The District Courts

The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right. Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.

There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court. Four territories of the United States have U.S. district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases: Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

There are also two special trial courts. The Court of International Trade addresses cases involving international trade and customs laws. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims deals with most claims for money damages against the U.S. government.


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The Bankruptcy Courts

Each of the 94 federal judicial districts also has a bankruptcy court. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Through the bankruptcy process, individuals or businesses that can no longer pay their creditors may either seek a court-supervised liquidation of their assets, or they may reorganize their financial affairs and work out a plan to pay their debts.


Article I Courts

Congress created several Article I, or legislative courts, that do not have full judicial power. Unlike the Article III courts, these legislative courts were created by Congress under its power under Article I of the Constitution. Article I courts are the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the U.S. Tax Court. In contrast to the judges of the Article III courts, judges of the legislative courts are appointed to fixed terms rather than life.