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US federal courts

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US federal courts

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The United States federal courts make up the judiciary branch of federal government of the United States organized under the United States Constitution and laws of the federal government. Article III of the Constitution requires the establishment of a Supreme Court and permits the Congress to create other federal courts, and place limitations on their jurisdiction. Congress has the authority to regulate the judicial system as a whole, though much of this power has been devolved to the courts themselves. The first courts were established through the Judiciary Act of 1789, which provided for the first Article III judges (who are appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate to serve until they resign, are impeached and convicted, retire, or die). Congress also has the power to establish other tribunals to assist in the execution of its powers, these are generally specialized courts. Judges who staff them normally serve fixed-terms, as are magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges who assist Article III judges. With limited exceptions, they cannot render final judgments in cases involving life, liberty, and private property rights, but may make preliminary rulings subject to review by an Article III judge.


The courts are one of the three coequal branches of the federal government, and currently include:

Highest court
Appellate courts
Original jurisdiction

Levels of U.S. federal courts

The United States district courts are the general federal trial courts, although in many cases Congress has passed statutes which divert original jurisdiction to the above-mentioned specialized courts or to administrative law judges (ALJs). In such cases, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from such lower bodies.

The United States courts of appeals are the federal intermediate appellate courts. They operate under a system of mandatory review which means they must hear all appeals of right from the lower courts.

The Supreme Court of the United States is the supreme court (court of last resort). It generally is an appellate court that operates under discretionary review; meaning that the Court, through granting of writs of certiorari, can choose which cases to hear. There is generally no right of appeal to the Supreme Court. In a few situations (like lawsuits between state governments or some cases between the federal government and a state) it sits as a court of original jurisdiction. Such matters are generally referred to a designated individual (usually a sitting or retired judge or well-respected attorney) to sit as a special master and report to the Court with recommendations.

Appointment and vacancies

In April 2013, about 10 percent of federal seats were vacant, with 85 of 856 positions unfilled and 4 vacancies on the prestigious United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.[2] The high vacancy rate has been attributed to politics, particularly Senate filibustering of potential appointees by Republican Senators.[2] In many cases there is no nominee for the position; however, the Senate has a tradition of senatorial courtesy in which nominees are only considered if the home senators approve.[3] In May 2013 Congressional Research Service published a paper analyzing the vacancies and appointment process.[4]

Related organizations

Limitations on U.S. federal courts

The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as placing some additional restrictions on the federal courts. For example, the doctrines of mootness, ripeness, and standing prohibit district courts from issuing advisory opinions. Other doctrines, such as the abstention doctrine and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine limit the power of lower federal courts to disturb rulings made by state courts. The Erie doctrine requires federal courts to apply substantive state law to claims arising from state law (which may be heard in federal courts under supplemental or diversity jurisdiction). In difficult cases, the federal courts must either guess as to how a court of that state would decide the issue or, if that state accepts certified questions from federal courts when state law is unclear or uncertain, ask an appellate court of that state to decide the issue.

Notably, the only federal court that can issue proclamations of federal law that bind state courts is the Supreme Court itself. Decisions of the lower federal courts, whether on issues of federal law or state law (i.e., the question was not certified to a state court), are persuasive but not binding authority in the states in which those federal courts sit.[5]

Study of U.S. federal courts

Most U.S. law schools offer an elective course that focuses specifically on the powers and limitations of U.S. federal courts, with coverage of topics such as justiciability, abstention doctrines, the abrogation doctrine, and habeas corpus.

See also


External links

  • The Federal Judiciary (official U.S. government site)
  • United States Federal Courts @ OpenJurist
  • Federal Court Concepts, Georgia Tech
  • Federal District Court Case Filings
  • Creating the Federal Judicial System (PDF)
  • History of the Courts of the Federal Judiciary
  • CourtWEB, Online Federal Court Opinions Information System
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