The federal court system that we have today is not the same as the system created by the framers. It has grown and evolved over time. Article III of the Constitution stated that the judicial power of the United States would reside in “one supreme Court,” making this court the first and only court established by the Constitution.
The framers also understood that as the nation grew, there might be a need for more courts. To account for this, the Constitution gave Congress the power to create courts “inferior” to the Supreme Court “from time to time.” This means that Congress has the power to both create and eliminate other federal courts, and that the court system is continuously evolving as national needs change.
Today, there are three basic levels of the federal courts
The United States district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. This is where federal cases are tried, where witnesses testify, and federal juries serve. There are 94 federal district courts in the United States.
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District courts have original jurisdiction, which means that they preside over cases first. These cases may be either criminal or civil cases.
- Criminal: Cases in which you break a federal law and get arrested are heard in a federal district court.
- Civil: One example would be a case in which you are suing the government or an agent of the government because they have violated the rights granted to you under the Constitution.
- Currently, federal district courts hear over 300,000 cases a year.
Congress initially created one district court for each state, but over time as population grew and shifted, more were added.
- Every state has at least one federal district, and some have as many as four.
- The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands each have a district court.
- In Missouri, we have two federal district courts. The Eastern District is located at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, and the Western District of Missouri is in Kansas City.
Congress passed a law in 1968 establishing the position of U.S. Magistrate Judge. They are federal judges of the district courts who serve 8 year terms. They handle preliminary criminal matters such as setting bail and issuing search warrants, and they assist the district judges with all types of cases.
Bankruptcy courts are separate units of the district courts. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases. People or businesses file for bankruptcy when they have more liabilities than they have the ability to pay from their assets and income. Bankruptcy judges serve 14 year terms.
The U.S. Court of International Trade has nationwide jurisdiction over cases involving international trade and customs.
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has nationwide jurisdiction over cases over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, unlawful “takings” of private property by the federal government, and a variety of other claims against the United States.
Courts of Appeals
There are 12 regional circuit courts, and one for the “Federal Circuit,” that were established by Congress to relieve some of the caseload of the Supreme Court, and to hear cases that are appealed from the 94 district courts.
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The courts of appeals have appellate jurisdiction. They are not trial courts and do not hear cases first. Instead, the appellate courts review the decisions of the district courts, and determine whether they were correct. In an appeal, the losing party from the federal district court (both criminal and civil cases) asks the court of appeals to revisit their case, and to make a judgment on some issue of law.
What does the word circuit mean? When the Supreme Court was first created, it was located in the U.S. capital, but judges also traveled a “circuit” in various states to hear cases. As the Courts of Appeal were created, judges did the same thing, traveling to courts within their circuit or region as needed. So we call these courts “circuit courts” for that reason.
The state of Missouri is within the Eighth Circuit, which also includes Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse houses the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. This means that cases heard in the district courts of all these states are sent to St. Louis when there is an appeal. The Eighth Circuit also hears appeals at the federal courthouse in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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 Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.
The U.S. Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. is the highest court in the nation. Move forward to the next page to learn about it.
Executive Branch Courts
There are several federal courts that are not actually part of the judicial branch of government. Congress established these courts to handle specific topics.
- U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
- U.S. Tax Court
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
- Additionally, many executive branch agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have administrative judges or administrative law judges.