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Introduction To The Federal Court System
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Introduction To The Federal Court System
The federal court system has three main levels: district courts (the trial court), circuit courts which are the first level of appeal, and the Supreme Court of the United States, the final level of appeal in the federal system. There are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court throughout the country.
Courts in the federal system work differently in many ways than state courts. The primary difference for civil cases (as opposed to criminal cases) is the types of cases that can be heard in the federal system. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes. The federal district court is the starting point for any case arising under federal statutes, the Constitution, or treaties. This type of jurisdiction is called “original jurisdiction.” Sometimes, the jurisdiction of state courts will overlap with that of federal courts, meaning that some cases can be brought in both courts. The plaintiff has the initial choice of bringing the case in state or federal court. However, if the plaintiff chooses state court, the defendant may sometimes choose to “remove” to federal court.
Cases that are entirely based on state law may be brought in federal court under the court’s “diversity jurisdiction.” Diversity jurisdiction allows a plaintiff of one state to file a lawsuit in federal court when the defendant is located in a different state. The defendant can also seek to “remove” from state court for the same reason. To bring a state law claim in federal court, all of the plaintiffs must be located in different states than all of the defendants, and the “amount in controversy” must be more than $75,000. (Note: the rules for diversity jurisdiction are much more complicated than explained here.)
Criminal cases may not be brought under diversity jurisdiction. States may only bring criminal prosecutions in state courts, and the federal government may only bring criminal prosecutions in federal court. Also important to note, the principle of double jeopardy – which does not allow a defendant to be tried twice for the same charge – does not apply between the federal and state government. If, for example, the state brings a murder charge and does not get a conviction, it is possible for the federal government in some cases to file charges against the defendant if the act is also illegal under federal law.
Federal judges (and Supreme Court “justices”) are selected by the President and confirmed “with the advice and consent” of the Senate and “shall hold their Offices during good Behavior.” Judges may hold their position for the rest of their lives, but many resign or retire earlier. They may also be removed by impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. Throughout history, fifteen federal judges have been impeached due to alleged wrongdoing. One exception to the lifetime appointment is for magistrate judges, which are selected by district judges and serve a specified term.
The district courts are the general trial courts of the federal court system. Each district court has at least one United States District Judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term. District courts handle trials within the federal court system – both civil and criminal. The districts are the same as those for the U.S. Attorneys, and the U.S. Attorney is the primary prosecutor for the federal government in his or her respective area.
District court judges are responsible for managing the court and supervising the court’s employees. They are able to continue to serve so long as they maintain “good behavior,” and they can be impeached and removed by Congress. There are over 670 district court judges nationwide.
Some tasks of the district court are given to federal magistrate judges. Magistrates are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges and serve for a term of eight years if full-time and four years if part-time, but they can be reappointed after completion of their term. In criminal matters, magistrate judges may oversee certain cases, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, conduct initial hearings, set bail, decide certain motions (such as a motion to suppress evidence), and other similar actions. In civil cases, magistrates often handle a variety of issues such as pre-trial motions and discovery.
Federal trial courts have also been established for a few subject-specific areas. Each federal district also has a bankruptcy court for those proceedings. Additionally, some courts have nationwide jurisdiction for issues such as tax (United States Tax Court), claims against the federal government (United States Court of Federal Claims), and international trade (United States Court of International Trade).
Once the federal district court has decided a case, the case can be appealed to a United States court of appeal. There are twelve federal circuits that divide the country into different regions. The Fifth Circuit, for example, includes the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Cases from the district courts of those states are appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. Additionally, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a nationwide jurisdiction over very specific issues such as patents.
The Process Although some cases are decided based on written briefs alone, many cases are selected for an "oral argument" before the court. Oral argument in the court of appeals is a structured discussion between the appellate lawyers and the panel of judges focusing on the legal principles in dispute. Each side is given a short time — usually about 15 minutes — to present arguments to the court.
The losing party in a decision by a trial court in the federal courts normally is entitled to appeal the decision to a federal court of appeals.
Although some cases are decided based on written briefs alone, many cases are selected for an "oral argument" before the court. Oral argument in the court of appeals is a structured discussion between the appellate lawyers and the panel of judges focusing on the legal principles in dispute. Each side is given a short time — usually about 15 minutes — to present arguments to the court.
Most appeals are final. The court of appeals decision usually will be the final word in the case, unless it sends the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings, or the parties ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In some cases the decision may be reviewed en banc, that is, by a larger group of judges (usually all) of the court of appeals for the circuit.
A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of a state, may file a petition for a "writ of certiorari," which is a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, does not have to grant review. The Court typically will agree to hear a case only when it involves an unusually important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently. There are also a small number of special circumstances in which the Supreme Court is required by law to hear an appeal.
Different types of cases are handled differently during an appeal.
Either side may appeal the verdict.
The defendant may appeal a guilty verdict, but the government may not appeal if a defendant is found not guilty. Either side in a criminal case may appeal with respect to the sentence that is imposed after a guilty verdict.
An appeal of a ruling by a bankruptcy judge may be taken to the district court. Several courts of appeals, however, have established a bankruptcy appellate panel consisting of three bankruptcy judges to hear appeals directly from the bankruptcy courts. In either situation, the party that loses in the initial bankruptcy appeal may then appeal to the court of appeals.
Appeals are decided by panels of three judges working together. The appellant presents legal arguments to the panel, in writing, in a document called a "brief." In the brief, the appellant tries to persuade the judges that the trial court made an error, and that its decision should be reversed. On the other hand, the party defending against the appeal, known as the "appellee," tries in its brief to show why the trial court decision was correct, or why any error made by the trial court was not significant enough to affect the outcome of the case.
Other Types of Appeals
A litigant who is not satisfied with a decision made by a federal administrative agency usually may file a petition for review of the agency decision by a court of appeals. Judicial review in cases involving certain federal agencies or programs — for example, disputes over Social Security benefits — may be obtained first in a district court rather than a court of appeals.
United States Court of Appeals
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The United States courts of appeals (or circuit courts) are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal courts. The court of appeals was originally created in 1891 and has grown to include thirteen courts.
A court of appeals decides appeals from any of the district courts that are in its federal judicial circuit. The appeals courts also can hear appeals from some administrative agencies. Decisions of the federal appeals courts can, in turn, be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
There are thirteen United States courts of appeals. In addition, there are other federal courts (such as the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which hears appeals in court-martial cases) that have "Court of Appeals" in their titles.
The eleven "numbered" circuits and the D.C. Circuit are defined by geography. The thirteenth court of appeal is the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. This court has nationwide jurisdiction over certain types of appeals based on what the underlying legal case is about.
All of the courts of appeals also hear appeals from some administrative agency decisions and rulemaking. The largest share of this type of case is heard by the D.C. Circuit. The Federal Circuit hears appeals from specialized trial courts, primarily the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims, as well as appeals from the district courts in patent cases and certain other specialized matters.
Relevant districts 1st Circuit 2nd Circuit 3rd Circuit 4th Circuit 5th Circuit 6th Circuit 7th Circuit 8th Circuit 9th Circuit 10th Circuit 11th Circuit
District of Columbia Circuit
Under each court is listed the U.S. district courts whose decisions, where relevant, are appealed to that circuit.
Federal circuit court judges are appointed for life. They are paid approximately $179,500 annually. At the age of 65, a federal judge may choose to retire with his or her full salary. Judges may also choose to go on senior status at age 65, if they have served actively for 15 years.
Appointments by president
The chart below shows the number of appeals court judges confirmed by the U.S. Senate through June 1 of the second year of each president's term in office. At this point in the term, President Trump had the most appeals court appointments with 21.
Judges by circuit
The table below displays the number of judges in each circuit and indicates how many were appointed by presidents from each major political party. It also includes the number of vacancies on a circuit and how many pending nominations for that circuit are before the United States Senate. The table can be sorted by clicking the column headers above the line. It is updated every Monday.
The rules that govern the procedure in the courts of appeals are the . In a Court of Appeals, an appeal is almost always heard by a panel of three judges who are randomly selected from the available judges, including senior judges and judges temporarily assigned to the circuit. Some cases, however, receive an hearing; except in the Ninth Circuit, the court consists of all circuit judges on active status, but does not include senior or assigned judges (under some circumstances, a senior judge may participate in an en banc hearing when he or she participated at an earlier stage of the same case).
Historically, certain classes of cases held a right of automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States; that is, one of the parties to the case could appeal a decision of a court of appeals and the Supreme Court had to accept the case. There is no longer any right of automatic appeal for a decision of a Court of Appeals, but a party may apply to that court to review a ruling of the circuit court—called petitioning for a —and the Supreme Court may, in its discretion, review any such ruling. In extremely rare cases, the Supreme Court may grant certiorari before judgment, thereby removing a case from the Court of Appeals and reviewing the lower court's ruling directly. This procedure was used in the Watergate-related case, , and in the 2005 decision involving the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, .
A Court of Appeals may also certify questions to the Supreme Court. This procedure was formerly used on occasion but is now rare. The Second Circuit, sitting , attempted to use this procedure in , as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in , but the Supreme Court dismissed the certificate after resolving the same issue in another case that had come to the Court through the standard procedure.Appeals court decisions, unlike trial court decisions, are binding precedent. Other courts in that circuit must, from that point forward, follow the appellate court's guidance in similar cases, regardless of whether the trial judge believes that the case should be decided differently.