a website for classes taught by William H. Widen

FALL 2016

*INTRODUCTION TO UNITED STATES LAW--Lecture Topic 3: Structure of the Federal Courts
    --Last Modified: Sunday, 31-Jul-2016 14:52:01 EDT

Lecture Topic 3: Structure of the Federal Courts


These materials explain the structural relationships among the U.S. district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. This lecture also describes where special federal courts, such as the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and U.S. bankruptcy courts, fit into the structure. Finally, this lecture briefly describes the work of federal judges and how they get appointed.


The judicial power of the United States is set forth in Article III, section I, of the U.S. Constitution:

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 Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

Thus, as you can see from the above language, the United States Supreme Court is the only court specifically provided for by the Constitution itself. It is the highest court in the United States and is known as an “Article III court.” Congress has used the power set forth in Article III to create two types of “inferior Courts” below the Supreme Court in a basic hierarchy of authority: the United States Courts of Appeal—the basic intermediate appellate courts in the federal system—and the United States District Courts—the basic trial courts in the federal system. Because these two systems of courts are created under the power conferred by Article III of the Constitution these two types of courts also are known as Article III courts.

Only an Article III court may exercise the full “judicial power” of the United States (subject to quirky rules in territories belonging to the United States). Judges serving on an Article III court (including Justices of the Supreme Court) are appointed by the President of the United States and the appointment must be approved with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Article III judges are appointed for life, their compensation may not be reduced, and they may only be removed by a process of impeachment for improper behavior. The lifetime tenure of the appointment, coupled with protection against reduction in salary, contribute to the creation of a judiciary that is truly independent from the Executive branch and the Legislative branch of government. Only Article III courts are considered “Constitutional Courts.”

Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to create “tribunals” inferior to the Supreme Court. A court created under this power is considered a “Legislative Court.” Congress has used this power to create two types of judges and courts which operate as adjuncts to the United States District Courts: the bankruptcy judges staff the bankruptcy court in each judicial district and magistrate judges staff magistrate courts in the judicial districts.

The Supreme Court held that Congress has the power under Article I to create adjunct tribunals so long as the “essential attributes of judicial power” stay in Article III courts. This power derives from two sources. First, when Congress creates rights, it can require those asserting such rights to go through an Article I tribunal. Second, Congress can create non-Article III tribunals to help Article III courts deal with their workload, but only if the Article I tribunals are under the control of the Article III courts. The bankruptcy courts, as well as the tribunals of magistrate judges who decide some issues in the district courts, fall within this category of these “adjunct” tribunals. All actions heard in an Article I tribunal are subject to de novo review in the supervising Article III court, which retains the exclusive power to make and enforce final judgments.

Additionally, Congress has created “district” courts in United States territories under Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2, of the Constitution which provides for administration of territories.

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

The district courts in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States Virgin Islands are territorial courts created pursuant to the power granted under Article 4. Judges to these courts are appointed by the President, with the consent of the Senate, to 10 year terms. Though called “district courts” because they exercise the same jurisdiction as an Article III district court, technically they are territorial courts. There are 91 Article III district courts and 3 Article 4 territorial courts exercising Article III jurisdiction, for a total of 94 district courts in the system. Though Puerto Rico is not a state of the United States, the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico has been established as an Article III court.

Congress has created additional Article III and Article I courts to serve specific purposes, some of the more important of which are briefly described as part of the continuing discussion below.

How the different federal courts fit together

Congress has divided the country into ninety-four federal judicial districts. In each district there is a U.S. district court. The U.S. district courts are the federal trial courts—the places where federal cases are tried, witnesses testify, and juries serve. Within each district is a U.S. bankruptcy court, a part of the district court that administers the bankruptcy laws, and magistrate courts.
 Congress uses state boundaries to help define the districts. Some districts cover the entire state, like Idaho. Other districts cover just part of a state, like the Northern District of California. 
 Congress placed each of the ninety-four districts in one of twelve regional circuits.

If you look on the map, you will see only eleven regional circuits identified by number. For example, Alabama, Georgia and Florida appear in the region marked “11” by a black dot. This indicates that those states are in the 11th Circuit. Puerto Rico (“PR”) is in the First Circuit. The Virgin Islands (“VI”) is in the Third Circuit. Alaska (“AK”) and Hawaii (“HI”) are in the Ninth Circuit. The twelfth regional circuit is for the District of Columbia Circuit which is indicated by the “DC” marking surrounded by a violet dot. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is the circuit court of appeals for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Each circuit has a court of appeals. If you lose a case in a district court, you can ask the court of appeals to review the case to see if the district judge applied the law correctly. For example, Miami is located in the Southern District of Florida. An appeal from a case heard in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida would be heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. An appeal from a decision of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would be made to the United States Supreme Court (though there is a procedure by which a request can be made for a rehearing “en banc” by a circuit court, about which more will be said in another lecture). As emphasized below, the United States Supreme Court generally is not required to take up an appeal, in which case the decision of the circuit court of appeals will stand.

You should note that the districts in Alabama, Georgia and Florida were originally part of the Fifth Circuit. Effective October 1, 1981, the districts in these states were split off to form the Eleventh Circuit. For this reason, Fifth Circuit decisions from before the split are considered binding precedent in the Eleventh Circuit. [Recall that you were introduced to the concept of binding precedent in Lecture Topic 2.]

There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, whose jurisdiction is defined by subject matter rather than by geography. Because its jurisdiction is not defined by geography, it is not known as a United States Circuit Court. This appellate court is indicated on the map by the designation “FED” surrounded by a magenta dot. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit hears appeals from certain courts and agencies, such as the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and certain types of cases from the district courts (mainly lawsuits by people claiming their patents have been infringed).

The Supreme Court of the United States, in Washington, D.C., is the highest court in the nation. If you lose a case in the court of appeals (or, sometimes, in a state supreme court), you can ask the Supreme Court to hear your appeal. However, unlike a court of appeals, as a general matter the Supreme Court doesn't have to hear an appeal of a decision that is made to it. In fact, the Supreme Court hears only a very small percentage of the cases it is asked to review.

What other federal courts exist?

Unlike the federal trial courts, which hear only cases arising in their district or because a litigant is a resident of the district, two special trial courts have nationwide jurisdiction over certain types of cases: the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The U.S. Court of International Trade hears cases involving international trade and customs issues. This is an Article III court and judges of this court have life tenure. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims hears mostly claims for money damages in excess of $10,000 against the United States, including disputes over federal contracts, federal takings of private property for public use, and rights of military personnel. With the approval of the Senate, the President appoints U.S. Court of Federal Claims judges for fifteen-year terms. This is an Article I court.

The federal courts in the territories of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands were established under Article IV of the Constitution, as outlined in the summary section above, though they are called “district courts” and sometimes are confused with the Article III district courts operating within the United States.

The United States Tax Court

The United States Tax Court is a federal trial court of record. It was created by Congress under Article I of the U.S. Constitution, section 8 of which provides (in part) that the Congress has the power to "constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court". The Tax Court resolves disputes over federal income tax, generally prior to the time at which formal tax assessments are made by the Internal Revenue Service. Taxpayers may choose to litigate tax matters in a variety of legal settings other than in the United States Tax Court. However, other than in a bankruptcy court, the Tax Court is the only forum in which taxpayers may dispute a federal tax assessment without having first paid the disputed amount in full. A taxpayer also may bring an action in any United States District Court, or in the United States Court of Federal Claims; however these venues require that the tax be paid first, and that the party then file a lawsuit to recover the contested amount paid (the "full payment rule" of Flora v. United States). Tax Court judges are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate for a term of 15 years, subject to presidential removal for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office...."[4]

The United States Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims

The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is a federal court of record that was established under Article I of the United States Constitution, and is thus referred to as an Article I tribunal (court). The court has exclusive national jurisdiction to provide independent, federal, judicial oversight and review of final decisions of the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

Judges are appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate, in the same manner as Article III Judges.[3] They are appointed to serve fifteen-year appointments.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces

The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces is an Article I court that exercises worldwide appellate jurisdiction over members of the United States Armed Forces on active duty and other persons subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The court is composed of five civilian judges appointed for 15-year terms by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the United States Senate. The court reviews decisions from the intermediate appellate courts of the services: the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, the Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.

Federal judges and how they get appointed

Supreme Court justices and court of appeals and district judges are appointed to office by the President of the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Senate. Presidents most often appoint judges who are members, or at least generally supportive, of their political party, but that doesn’t mean that judges are given appointments solely for partisan reasons. The professional qualifications of prospective federal judges are closely evaluated by the Department of Justice, which consults with others, such as lawyers who can evaluate the prospect’s abilities. The Senate Judiciary Committee undertakes a separate examination of the nominees.

What is an Article III judge?

The U.S. Supreme Court, the federal courts of appeals and district courts, and the U.S. Court of International Trade are established under Article III of the Constitution. Justices and judges of these courts, known as Article III judges, exercise what Article III calls "the judicial power of the United States."

Are there judges in the federal courts other than Article III judges?

Bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges conduct some of the proceedings held in federal courts. Bankruptcy judges handle almost all bankruptcy matters, in bankruptcy courts that are technically included in the district courts but function as separate entities. Magistrate judges carry out various responsibilities in the district courts and often help prepare the district judges’ cases for trial.

Some tasks of the district court are given to federal magistrate judges. In criminal matters, magistrate judges may oversee certain cases, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, conduct inital 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. They also may preside over criminal misdemeanor trials and may preside over civil trials when both parties agree to have the case heard by a magistrate judge instead of a district judge.

Unlike district judges, bankruptcy and magistrate judges do not exercise "the judicial power of the United States" but perform duties delegated to them by district judges. Magistrates are appointed by the district court in which they sit 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. Magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges are not appointed by the President or subject to Congress’s approval. The court of appeals in each circuit appoints bankruptcy judges for fourteen-year terms.

The judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims are also not Article III judges. Their court is a special trial court that hears mostly claims for money damages in excess of $10,000 against the United States. With the approval of the Senate, the President appoints U.S. Court of Federal Claims judges for fifteen-year terms. Similarly, judges of the Tax Court, the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Services are not Article III judges.

How many federal judges are there?

Congress authorizes a set number of judge positions, or judgeships, for each court level. Since 1869, Congress has authorized 9 positions for the Supreme Court. It currently authorizes 179 court of appeals judgeships and 678 district court judgeships.(In 1950, there were only 65 court of appeals judgeships and 212 district court judgeships.) There are currently 352 bankruptcy judgeships and 551 full-time and part-time magistrate judgeships. It is rare that all judgeships are filled at any one time; judges die or retire, for example, causing vacancies until judges are appointed to replace them. In addition to judges occupying these judgeships, retired judges often continue to perform some judicial work.

Judgeships are not allocated equally among the judicial circuits. For example, each circuit court has multiple judges, ranging from six on the First Circuit to twenty-nine on the Ninth Circuit.

What are the qualifications for becoming a federal judge?

Although there are almost no formal qualifications for federal judges, there are some strong informal ones. For example, while magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges are required by statute to be lawyers, there is no statutory requirement that district judges, circuit judges, or Supreme Court justices be lawyers. But it would be unheard-of for a president to nominate someone who is not a lawyer. Before their appointment, most judges were private attorneys, but many were judges in state courts or other federal courts. Some were government attorneys and a few were law professors.

Can a federal judge be fired?

Justices and judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution (Supreme Court justices, appellate and district court judges, and Court of International Trade judges) serve "during good behavior." That means they may keep their jobs unless Congress decides to remove them through a lengthy process called impeachment and conviction. Congress has found it necessary to use this process only a few times in the history of our country. From a practical standpoint, almost all of these judges hold office for as long as they wish. Article III also prohibits lowering the salaries of federal judges "during their continuance in office." Bankruptcy judges, in contrast, may be removed from office by circuit judicial councils, and magistrate judges may be removed by the district judges of the magistrate judge's circuit. Bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges don’t have the same protections (lifetime appointment and no reduction in salary) as judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution.

Why are some federal judges protected from losing their jobs and having their pay cut?

Federal judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution are guaranteed what amounts to life tenure and unreduced salary so that they won’t be afraid to make an unpopular decision. For example, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court said it is constitutional for the federal and state governments to impose the death penalty if the statute is carefully drafted to provide adequate safeguards, even though many people are opposed to the death penalty.

The constitutional protection that gives federal judges the freedom and independence to make decisions that are politically and socially unpopular is one of the basic elements of our democracy. According to the Declaration of Independence, one reason the American colonies wanted to separate from England was that King George III "made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries."

For judges who are appointed for life, what safeguards ensure that they remain fair and impartial?

Judges must follow the ethical standards set out in the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which contains guidelines to make sure a judge does not preside over a case in which he or she has any reason to favor one side over the other. For example, a judge must withdraw or recuse himself or herself from any case in which a close relative is a party, or in which he or she has any financial interest, however remote. Judges are required to file a financial disclosure form annually, so that all their stock holdings, board memberships, and other financial interests are on public record. They must be careful not to do anything that might cause people to think they would favor one side in a case over another. For this reason, they can’t give speeches urging voters to pick one candidate over another for public office or ask people to contribute money to civic organizations. Judges without life tenure are also subject to the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

When do judges retire?

Most federal judges retire from full-time service at around sixty-five or seventy years of age and become senior judges. Senior judges are still federal judges, eligible to earn their full salary and to continue hearing cases if they and their colleagues want them to do so, but they usually maintain a reduced caseload. Full-time judges are known as active judges.

How are cases assigned to judges?

Each court with more than one judge must determine a procedure for assigning cases to judges. Most district and bankruptcy courts use random assignment, which helps to ensure a fair distribution of cases and also prevents "judge shopping," or parties’ attempts to have their cases heard by the judge who they believe will act most favorably. Other courts assign cases by rotation, subject matter, or geographic division of the court. In courts of appeals, cases are usually assigned by random means to three-judge panels.

Review Questions

1. There are ____ judicial districts in the federal system.

a. 12

b. 13

c. 50

d. 94

e. 100

2. Congress uses ____________boundaries to help define federal judicial districts.

a. municipal

b. regional

c. state

d. geographic

e. federal

3. Only __________can be removed from office by circuit judicial councils.

a. Supreme Court justices

b. appellate judges

c. district judges

d. bankruptcy judges

e. Court of International Trade judges

4. True or false? Several federal judicial districts include more than one state.

Your answer: ___ True: ___ False.

5. True or false? The Supreme Court of the United States will usually decide whether a state supreme court or federal court of appeals made a correct decision, if a party to the case asks it to.

Your answer: ___ True: ___ False.

6. Supreme Court justices and court of appeals and district judges are appointed to office by the President of the United States with the approval of the ______________.

a. U.S. House of Representatives

b. U.S. Senate

c. U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate

d. Judicial Conference of the United States

e. U.S. Department of Justice

7. True or false? The number of justices on the Supreme Court is 9.

Your answer: ___ True: ___ False.

8. Supreme Court justices and court of appeals and district judges can be removed from the bench if they are

a. found by Congress to have made too many incorrect decisions

b. found by Congress to be incompetent

c. impeached and convicted by Congress

d. impeached and convicted by the President

e. any of the above

9. Under the _________, a judge must withdraw from any case in which a close relative is a party.

a. Constitution, Article III

b. Code of Conduct for United States Judges

c. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

d. Fifth Amendment

e. Monograph 111

10. True or false? A federal judge who believes the law should be changed in a certain area can petition the chief judge for a case that will allow him or her to issue a decision that modifies the existing law.

Your answer: ___ True: ___ False.

Last Modified: Sunday, 31-Jul-2016 14:52:01 EDT