federal courts – jurisdiction over claims arising under the U.S. Constitution, an act of Congress, or a treaty. or cases involving diversity of citizenship of parties

     Below is a list of each type of federal court followed by information about the history, function, and purpose of each.   

Jurisdiction of Federal Courts:

     Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction (limited power).  Generally, only two types of cases can be heard in federal court cases involving a federal question and involving diversity of citizenship of the parties. [1]

Federal-Question Jurisdiction – the exercise of federal-court power over claims arising under the U.S. Constitution, an act of Congress, or a treaty.

Diversity Jurisdiction – the jurisdiction of a federal court over all civil actions involving diversity of citizenship (wherein the parties involved are from different states (or foreign states)) and the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs.

Federal Rules of Procedure:

As you may have already noticed, Wild Willpower PAC is assembling simplified versions of federal court rules to help walk you through them, as follows:

Federal Rules of Civil Procedure – for use in civil proceedings (torts).

Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure – for use in criminal proceedings.

Federal Rules of Evidence applicable to civil cases  and criminal cases.

Note:  Some cases may be tried as both criminal and civil: see crimes that are also usually torts and penal actions.


     The federal judiciary operates separately from the executive and legislative branches, but works with them in ways the Constitution requires.  Federal laws are passed by Congress and signed by the President.  The judicial branch decides the constitutionality of federal laws and resolves other disputes about federal laws. Judges depend on the executive branch to enforce court decisions.

     Courts decide what really happened and what should be done about it.  They decide whether a person committed a crime and what the punishment should be (see criminal proceedings). They also provide a peaceful way to decide private disputes that people can’t resolve themselves (see civil proceedings). Depending on the dispute or crime, some cases end up in the federal courts and some end up in state courts. [3]

List of Federal Courts
and their General Roles:

     The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the three levels of the federal court system in existence today. Periodically, however, Congress has exercised its power, based on Article III and Article I of the Constitution, to create other federal courts.  Courts established under Article III are known as constitutional courts and those created under Article I are called legislative courts.  The Supreme Court,courts of appeals, and federal district courts are constitutional courts. [3]

Constitutional Courts:
“Article III Courts”

U.S. Supreme Court – located in Washington, D.C., reviews unprecedented cases and announces Supreme Court Decisions which may be cited in court in order to back cases brought within other courts.  The highest court in the United States.

U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Federal Circuit – these 13 “circuit courts” review cases appealed from federal district courts, and in some cases from administrative agencies. — aka circuit courts.courts of appeals.

U.S. Federal District Courts – located in every state, the District of Columbia and in four territories: Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, and having original jurisdiction over virtually all cases.  These “trial courts” are where the factual record is established, and they’re the only federal courts wherein attorneys examine and cross-examine witnesses; aka trial courts.

United States Court of International Trade – a special trial court with nationwide jurisdiction over civil actions arising out of the customs and international trade laws of the U.S.

Legislative Courts:
“Article I Courts”

     These courts have administrative, quasi-legislative, and judicial duties used for the express purpose of helping to administer specific congressional statutes:

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces – worldwide appellate jurisdiction over members of the armed forces on active duty and other persons subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims – reviews Board of Veterans’ Appeals decisions appealed by claimants who believe the Board erred in its decision.

U.S. Tax Court – a trial court to expeditiously resolve disputes between taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims – a special trial court which deals with most claims for money damages against the U.S. government, and damages related to vaccine compensation.


     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. [3]

History & Organization of America’s Dual Court System:

     One of the most important, interesting, & possibly most confusing features of the judiciary in the United States is the dual court system; that is, each level of government (state and national) has its own set of courts. Thus, there is a separate court system for each state, one for the District of Columbia, & one for the federal government.  Some legal problems are resolved entirely in the state courts, whereas others are handled entirely in the federal courts.  Still others may receive attention from both sets of tribunals (courts), which sometimes causes friction. 

     Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, almost all functions of the national government were vested in a single-chamber legislature called Congress.  There was no separation of executive & legislative powers.  

     The absence of a national judiciary was considered a major weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Consequently, the delegates gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 expressed widespread agreement that a national judiciary should be established.

     The first proposal presented to the Constitutional Convention was the Virginia Plan, which would have set up both a Supreme Court and inferior federal courts.

     Opponents of the Virginia Plan responded with the New Jersey Plan, which called for the creation of a single federal supreme tribunal.  Supporters of the New Jersey Plan were especially disturbed by the idea of lower federal courts.

     The conflict between the states’ rights advocates and the nationalists was resolved by one of the many compromises that characterized the Constitutional Convention.  The compromise is found in Article III of the Constitution, which begins, “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.

The Judiciary Act of 1789

     Once the Constitution was ratified, action on the federal judiciary came quickly.  When the new Congress convened in 1789, its first major concern was judicial organization.  Discussion of Senate Bill 1 involved many of the same participants and arguments as were involved in the Constitutional Convention’s debates on the judiciary.  Once again, the question was whether lower federal courts should be created at all or whether federal claims should first be heard in state courts.  Attempts to resolve this controversy split Congress into two distinct groups.

     One group, which believed that federal law should be adjudicated in the state courts first and by the U.S. Supreme Court only on appeal, expressed the fear that the new government would destroy the rights of the states.  The other group of legislators, suspicious of the parochial prejudice of state courts, feared that litigants from other states and other countries would be dealt with unjustly.  This latter group naturally favored a judicial system that included lower federal courts.  The law that emerged from this debate, the Judiciary Act of 1789, set up a judicial system composed of a Supreme Court, consisting of a chief justice and five associate justices; three circuit courts, each comprising two justices of the Supreme Court and a district judge; and 13 district courts, each presided over by one district judge. The power to create inferior federal courts, then, was immediately exercised.  Congress created not one but two sets of lower courts.  [2]


     Although judges are the most visible actors in the judicial system, a large supporting cast is also at work. Their efforts are necessary to perform the tasks for which judges are unskilled or unsuited, or for which they simply do not have adequate time.  Some members of the support team, such as law clerks, may work specifically for one judge.  Others – for example, U.S. magistrate judges – are assigned to a particular court.  Still others may be employees of an agency, such as the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, that serves the entire judicial system.

U.S. Magistrate Judges:

     In an effort to help federal district judges deal with increased workloads, Congress in 1968 created a system of magistrate judges that responds to each district court’s specific needs and circumstances. Magistrate judges are appointed by the judges of the district court for eight-year terms of office, although they can be removed before the expiration of the term for “good cause.” Within guidelines set by the Congress, the judges in each district court establish the duties and responsibilities of their magistrate judges. The legislation permits a magistrate judge, with the consent of the involved parties, to conduct all proceedings in a jury or nonjury civil matter and enter a judgment in the case and to conduct a trial of persons accused of misdemeanors (less serious offenses than felonies) committed within the district, provided the defendants consent. Because the decision to delegate responsibilities to a magistrate judge is still made by the district judge, however, a magistrate judge’s participation in the processing of cases may be more narrow than that permitted by statute.

Law Clerks:

     The first use of law clerks by an American judge is generally traced to Horace Gray of Massachusetts. In the summer of 1875, while serving as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, he employed, at his own expense, a highly ranked new graduate of the Harvard Law School. Each year, he employed a new clerk from Harvard. When Gray was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1882, he brought a law clerk with him to the nation’s highest court.

     Justice Gray’s successor on the High Court was Oliver Wendell Holmes, who also adopted the practice of annually hiring honor graduates of Harvard Law School as his clerks. When William Howard Taft, a former law professor at Yale, became chief justice, he secured a new law clerk annually from the dean of the Yale Law School. Harlan Fiske Stone, former dean of the Columbia Law School, joined the Court in 1925 and made it his practice to hire a Columbia graduate each year.

     Since these early beginnings there has been a steady growth in the use of law clerks by all federal courts. More than 2,000 law clerks now work for federal judges, and more than 600 serve bankruptcy judges and U.S. magistrate judges. In addition to the law clerks hired by individual judges, all appellate courts and some district courts hire staff law clerks who serve the entire court.

     A law clerk’s duties vary according to the preferences of the judge for whom he or she works. They also vary according to the type of court. Law clerks for federal district judges often serve primarily as research assistants. They spend a good deal of time examining the various motions filed in civil and criminal cases. They review each motion, noting the issues and the positions of the parties involved, then research important points raised in the motions and prepare written memorandums for the judges. Because their work is devoted to the earliest stages of the litigation process, they may have a substantial amount of contact with attorneys and witnesses. Law clerks at this level may be involved in the initial drafting of opinions.

     At the appellate level, the law clerk becomes involved in a case first by researching the issues of law and fact presented by an appeal. The courts of appeals do not have the same discretion to accept or reject a case that the Supreme Court has, and they use certain screening devices to differentiate between cases that can be handled quickly and those that require more time and effort. Law clerks are an integral part of this screening process.

     A number of cases are scheduled for oral argument, and the clerk may be called upon to assist the judge in preparing for it. Intensive analysis of the record by judges prior to oral argument is not always possible. They seldom have time to do more than scan pertinent portions of the record called to their attention by law clerks.

     Once a decision has been reached by an appellate court, the law clerk frequently participates in writing the order that accompanies the decision. The clerk’s participation generally consists of drafting a preliminary opinion or order pursuant to the judge’s directions. A law clerk may also be asked to edit or check citations(references to a statute, precedent-setting case, or legal textbook, in a brief or argument in court) in an opinion written by the judge. The work of the law clerk for a Supreme Court justice roughly parallels that of a clerk in the other appellate courts. Clerks play an indispensable role in helping justices decide which cases should be heard. At the suggestion of Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., in 1972, a majority of the Court’s members began to participate in a “certpool”; the justices pool their clerks, divide up all filings, and circulate a single clerk’s certiorari memo to all those participating in the pool. The memo summarizes the facts of the case, the questions of law presented, and the recommended course of action – that is, whether the case should be granted a full hearing, denied, or dismissed. Once the justices have voted to hear a case, the law clerks, like their counterparts in the courts of appeals, prepare bench memorandums that the justices may use during oral argument. Finally, law clerks for Supreme Court justices, like those who serve courts of appeals judges, help to draft opinions.

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts:

     The administration of the federal judicial system as a whole is managed by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Since its creation in 1939 it has handled everything from distributing supplies to negotiating with other government agencies for court accommodations in federal buildings to maintaining judicial personnel records and collecting data on cases in the federal courts.

     The Administrative Office also serves the Judicial Conference of the United States, the central administrative policy-making organization of the federal judicial system. In addition to providing statistical information to the conference’s many committees, the Administrative Office acts as a reception center and clearinghouse for information and proposals directed to the Judicial Conference. The office also acts as liaison for both the federal judicial system and the Judicial Conference, serving as advocate for the judiciary in its dealings with Congress, the executive branch, professional groups, and the general public. Especially important is its representative role before Congress where, along with concerned judges, it presents the judiciary’s budget proposals, requests for additional judgeships, suggestions for changes in court rules, and other key measures.

The Federal Judicial Center:

     The Federal Judicial Center, created in 1967, is the federal courts’ agency for continuing education and research. Its duties fall generally into three categories: conducting research on the federal courts, making recommendations to improve the administration and management of the federal courts, and developing educational and training programs for personnel of the judicial branch.

     Since its inception, judges have benefited from orientation sessions and other educational programs put on by the Federal Judicial Center. In recent years, magistrate judges, bankruptcy judges, and administrative personnel have also been the recipients of educational programs. The Federal Judicial Center’s extensive use of videos and satellite technology allows it to reach large numbers of people.


     The workload of the courts is heavy for all three levels of the federal judiciary – U.S. district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court.

      For fiscal year 2002 slightly more than 340,000 cases were commenced in the federal district courts. Criminal filings alone have risen 43 percent since 1993.

     In 1995, 50,072 appeals were filed in one of the regional circuit courts. This figure increased every year, to a high of 60,847 appeals in 2003. However, the number of appeals terminated by the courts of appeals has also been steadily increasing, from 49,805 in 1995 to 56,586 in 2002.

     The overall caseload of the Supreme Court is large by historical standards; there were 8,255 cases on the docket for the 2002 term. The Supreme Court, however, has discretion to decide which cases merit its full attention. As a result, the number of cases argued before the Court has declined rather dramatically over the years. In the 2002 term only 84 cases were argued and 79 were disposed of in 71 signed opinions. [4]


Disclaimer: All material throughout this website is pertinent to people everywhere, and is being utilized in accordance with Fair Use.

Feature Image: United States Courts of Appeals for the Federal Circuit: http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/

[1]:  United States Courts, “Complaint for a Civil Case, Form Number: Pro Se 1,” page 3: http://www.uscourts.gov/forms/pro-se-forms/complaint-civil-case

[2]:  United States Courts, “Court Role and Structurehttp://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/court-role-and-structure

[3]: “About” sections” and home pages of each court’s website for court descriptions.

[4]: 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


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