The U.S. district courts represent the basic point of input for the federal judicial system. Although some cases are later taken to a court of appeals or perhaps even to the Supreme Court, most federal cases never move beyond the U.S. trial courts. In terms of sheer numbers of cases handled, the district courts are the workhorses of the federal judiciary. However, their importance extends beyond simply disposing of a large number of cases.
The District Courts as Trial Courts:
Congress established the district courts as the trial courts of the federal judicial system and gave them original jurisdiction over virtually all cases. They are the only federal courts in which attorneys examine and cross-examine witnesses. The factual record is thus established at this level. Subsequent appeals of the trial court decision focus on correcting errors rather than on reconstructing the facts.
The task of determining the facts in a case often falls to a jury, a group of citizens from the community who serve as impartial arbiters of the facts and apply the law to the facts. The Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in criminal cases in the Sixth Amendment and the same right in civil cases in the Seventh Amendment. The right can be waived, however, in which case the judge becomes the arbiter both of questions of fact and of matters of law. Such trials are referred to as bench trials.
Two types of juries are associated with federal district courts. The grand jury is a group of men and women convened to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that a person has committed the federal crime of which he or she has been accused. Grand jurors meet periodically to hear charges brought by the U.S. attorney. Petit jurors are chosen at random from the community to hear evidence and determine whether a defendant in a civil trial has liability or whether a defendant in a criminal trial is guilty or not guilty. Federal rules call for 12 jurors in criminal cases but permit fewer in civil cases. The federal district courts generally use six-person juries in civil cases.
Trial courts are viewed as engaging primarily in norm enforcement, whereas appellate courts are seen as having greater opportunity to make policy. Norm enforcement is closely tied to the administration of justice, because all nations develop standards considered essential to a just and orderly society. Societal norms are embodied in statutes, administrative regulations, prior court decisions, and community traditions. Criminal statutes, for example, incorporate concepts of acceptable and unacceptable behavior into law. A judge deciding a case concerning an alleged violation of that law is practicing norm enforcement. Because cases of this type rarely allow the judge to escape the strict restraints of legal and procedural requirements, he or she has little chance to make new law or develop new policy. In civil cases, too, judges are often confined to norm enforcement, because such litigation generally arises from a private dispute whose outcome is of interest only to the parties in the suit.
The district courts also play a policy-making role, however. As Americans have become more litigation-conscious, disputes that were once resolved informally are now more likely to be decided in a court of law. The courts find themselves increasingly involved in domains once considered private. What does this mean for the federal district courts? According to one study, “These new areas of judicial involvement tend to be relatively free of clear, precise appellate court and legislative guidelines; and as a consequence the opportunity for trial court jurists to write on a clean slate, that is, to make policy, is formidable.“
The First District Courts:
Congress made the decision to create a national network of federal trial courts when it passed the Judiciary Act of 1789. Section 2 of the act established 13 district courts by making each of the 11 states then in the Union a district, and by making the parts of Massachusetts and Virginia that were to become Maine and Kentucky into separate districts. That organizational scheme established the practice, which still exists, of honoring state boundary lines in drawing districts.
The First District Judges:
Each federal district court was to be presided over by a single judge who resided in the district. As soon as this became known, President Washington began receiving letters from individuals desiring appointment to the various judgeships. Many asked members of Congress or Vice President John Adams to recommend them to President Washington. Personal applications were not necessarily successful and were not the only way in which names came to the president’s attention. Harry Innes, for example, was not an applicant for the Kentucky judgeship but received it after being recommended by a member of Congress from his state.
As new states came into the Union, additional district courts were created. The additions, along with resignations, gave Washington an opportunity to offer judgeships to 33 people. All of the judges he appointed were members of the bar, and all but seven had state or local legal experience as judges, prosecutors, or attorneys general. Presidents have continued to appoint lawyers with public service backgrounds to the federal bench.
Present Organization of the District Courts:
As the country grew, new district courts were created. Eventually, Congress began to divide some states into more than one district. California, New York, and Texas have the most, with four each. Other than consistently honoring state lines, the organization of district constituencies appears to follow no rational plan. Size and population vary widely from district to district. Over the years, a court was added for the District of Columbia, and several territories have been served by district courts. There are now U.S. district courts serving the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The original district courts were each assigned one judge. With the growth in population and litigation, Congress has periodically had to add judges to most of the districts. The Federal Judgeship Act of 1990 created 74 new district judgeships, bringing the current total to 649. Today all districts have more than one judge; the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan and the Bronx, currently has 28 judges and is thus the largest. Because each federal district court is normally presided over by a single judge, several trials may be in session within the district at any given time.
Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is pertinent to people everywhere, and is being utilized in accordance with Fair Use.
: IIP Digital website: “History and Organization of the Federal Judicial System” (retrieved 2015): http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/publication/2008/05/20080522212957eaifas0.9853327.html#axzz47w7Cx0Fp
Like this website?
or donate via PayPal:
This website is being broadcast for First Amendment purposes courtesy of
We look forward to hearing from you!