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Far too many people lack knowledge of their federal court system, believing that it is a forum only to be used and understood by attorneys. However, the federal courts are public institutions, used by millions of citizens each year. As one of the three branches of government, the Constitution assigns the Judiciary status equal to that of the legislative and executive branches.

This document, Understanding the Federal Courts, provides an overview of the organization, operation, and administration of the entire federal court system. It lists the location and number of judges who sit on each court. It also contains charts showing the structure of the federal court system and the path a case takes as it works its way through this system. Also included is a helpful glossary of terms, may of which are used in this document.

The business of your federal courts is to dispense justice in as fair and efficient a manner as possible. As citizens of the United States and consumers of justice, it is essential that we all possess an understanding of the third branch of government. - L. Ralph Mecham Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

The Federal Judicial Branch
State and Federal Courts
Structure of the Federal Courts
The Supreme Court
Courts of Appeals
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
District Courts
U.S. Bankruptcy Courts
U.S. Magistrate Judges
Court Personnel

Court of International Trade
Territorial Courts

Judicial Councils & Conferences
Judicial Councils
Administrative Office of the United States Courts
Federal Judicial Center

Article I Courts
U.S. Court of Military Appeals
U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals
U.S. Court of Federal Claims
U.S. Tax Court

Understanding the Federal Courts
The Federal Judicial Branch

The position of the United States courts in the nation's system of government is not difficult to understand when that system is viewed as a whole. The government of the United States is a dual one--federal (national) and state. The federal government has three separate branches: the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the President, administrative agencies, and military services), and the judicial branch (the courts).

The powers of the U.S. courts are limited first to the powers granted to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution and second to judicial powers. The courts cannot exercise powers granted by the Constitution to the legislative branch or the executive branch of the federal government.

The Constitution ensures the judicial branch's equality with and independence from the legislative and executive branches. Although federal judges are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate and the funds for the operation of the courts are appropriated by Congress, the independence of the U.S. courts is provided for in three respects:

o Under the Constitution, these courts can be called upon to exercise only judicial powers and to perform only judicial work. Judicial powers and judicial work involve the application and interpretation of the law in the decision of real differences; that is, in the language of the Constitution, the decision of cases and controversies. The courts cannot be called upon to make laws, which is the function of the legislative branch, or be expected to enforce and execute laws, which is the function of the executive branch.

o Federal judges are appointed for life. In the language of the Constitution, they "hold their Offices during good Behavior"; that is, they serve as long as they desire to, and they can be removed from office against their will only through "impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

o The Constitution provides that the compensation of federal judges "shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office." Neither the President (the head of the executive branch) nor Congress (the legislative branch) may reduce the salary of a federal judge.

These three provisions--for judicial work only, for holding office during good behavior, and for undiminished compensation--are designed to assure federal judges of independence from outside influence so that their decisions can be completely impartial and based only on the laws and facts of the cases.

State and Federal Courts

Throughout the United States there are two judicial systems. One system consists of state and local courts established under the authority of the state governments. The other is the Supreme Court and the federal court system, created by Congress under the authority of the Constitution of the United States.

"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."
- Article III, U.S. Constitution

The state courts have general, unlimited power to decide nearly every type of case, subject only to the limitations of the U.S. Constitution, their own state constitutions, and state law. The state and local courts are located in virtually every town and county and are the courts with which citizens most often have contact. These courts handle most criminal matters and the great bulk of legal business concerning probate of estates, marital disputes, dealings in land, commercial contracts, and other day-to-day matters.

The federal courts, in contrast, have power to decide only those cases over which the Constitution gives them authority. These courts are located principally in the larger cities. Only carefully selected types of cases may be heard in the federal courts.

The controversies that may be decided in the federal courts are identified in Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution. They include cases in which the United States government or one of its officers is either suing someone or being sued.

The federal courts also may decide cases for which state courts are inappropriate or might be suspected of partiality. Thus, federal courts may decide, in the language of the Constitution, "Controversies between two or more states;
* between a State and Citizens of another State;
* between Citizens of different States;
* [or] between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States." For example, one state might be sued by another state for the pollution of its air. Since the impartiality of the courts in either state could be questioned, such a suit might be decided in a federal court.

U.S. Courts

* Supreme Court -- One court with national jurisdiction.
* Courts of Appeals -- 12 Geographic-based and one for the Federal Circuit.
* District Courts -- 94 in 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Similarly, the Constitution extends the authority of the federal courts to cases affecting ambassadors, consuls, and other public ministers. The U.S. government also has constitutional responsibility for U.S. relations with other nations. Because cases involving other nations' representatives or citizens may affect U.S. foreign relations, such cases are decided in the federal courts.

The Constitution provides the federal courts the power to hear cases involving the Constitution as a law, laws enacted by Congress, treaties, and laws relating to navigable waters (the sea, the Great Lakes, and most rivers) and commerce on them. The federal courts' jurisdiction also encompasses the many cases that involve or affect commerce among states.

The Constitution describes what cases may be decided in the federal courts. Congress may and has determined that some of these cases also may be tried in state courts, giving federal and state courts concurrent jurisdiction. Congress has provided that suits between citizens of different states may be heard in the federal courts or the state courts, but they may be heard in the federal courts only if the amount in controversy exceeds $50,000. Congress also has provided that maritime cases and suits against consuls may be tried only in the federal courts. When a state court decides a case involving federal law, it in a sense acts as a federal court, and its decisions on federal law may be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The federal courts hear both criminal and civil cases. Whether a particular case is one that may be decided by the federal courts or the state courts may be a highly technical matter that judges and lawyers must resolve.

Structure of the Federal Courts

The structure of the federal court system has varied a great deal throughout the history of the nation. The Constitution merely provides that the judicial power of the United States "be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." Thus, the only indispensable court is the Supreme Court. Congress has established and abolished other U.S. courts as national needs have changed over time.

If the federal court system is viewed as a pyramid, at the top is the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court.

On the next level are the 13 United States Courts of Appeals and the Court of Military Appeals. On the following level are the 94 U.S. district courts and the specialized courts, such as the Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and the Court of International Trade. There are various routes a case may take to a federal court. Some cases may originate in a U.S. district court, while others will come from a state court or federal agency.

A person involved in a suit in a U.S. court may proceed through three levels of decision. Generally, the case will be heard and decided by one of the district courts on the first level. If a party is dissatisfied with the decision rendered, the party may have the decision reviewed in one of the courts of appeals. If dissatisfied with the decision of a court of appeals, the party may seek additional review in the Supreme Court of the United States; however, the Supreme Court primarily reviews only cases that involve a matter of great national importance and only accepts a small number of cases each term.

This pyramid-like organization of the courts serves two purposes. First, the courts of appeals can correct errors that have been made in the decisions of trial courts. Second, the Supreme Court can ensure the uniformity of decisions by reviewing cases in which constitutional issues have been decided or in which two or more lower courts have reached different results.

Courts are presided over by judicial officers. In the Supreme Court, the judicial officers are called justices. In the courts of appeals, district courts, and other courts, most of the judicial officers are called judges. Today's justices and judges have the authority, duties, and benefits assigned to them by law, as enacted and amended by Congress.

Judges who are at least 65 years of age and have served as active judges for a minimum of 15 years often elect to take senior status. As senior judges, they may continue to hear cases, deal with administrative matters, and serve on special commissions and committees. Nearly 15 percent of the federal courts' caseload has been handled by senior judges.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States consists of nine justices appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

One justice is appointed as the Chief Justice and has additional administrative duties related both to the Supreme Court and to the entire federal court system. Each justice is assigned to one of the courts of appeals for emergency responses.

The Supreme Court meets on the first Monday of October each year and usually continues in session through June. The Supreme Court receives and disposes of about 5,000 cases each year, most by a brief decision that the subject matter is either not proper or not of sufficient importance to warrant review by the full court. Cases are heard en banc, which means by all the justices sitting together in open court. Each year the court decides about 150 cases of great national importance and interest, and about three-fourths of such decisions are announced in full published opinions.

The Supreme Court is located across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Courts of Appeals

The intermediate appellate courts in the federal judicial system are the courts of appeals. Twelve of these courts have jurisdiction over cases from certain geographic areas. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has national jurisdiction over specific types of cases.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the 12 regional courts of appeals are often referred to as circuit courts. That is because early in the nation's history, the judges of the first courts of appeals visited each of the courts in one region in a particular sequence, traveling by horseback and riding " circuit." These courts of appeals review matters from the district courts of their geographical regions, the U.S. Tax Court, and from certain federal administrative agencies. A disappointed party in a district court usually has the right to have the case reviewed in the court of appeals for the circuit. Appeals court judges are appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The First through Eleventh Circuits each include three or more states, as illustrated by The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia hears cases arising in the District of Columbia and has appellate jurisdiction assigned by Congress in legislation concerning many departments of the federal government.

Each court of appeals consists of six or more judges, depending on the caseload of the courts. The judge who has served on the court the longest and who is under 65 years of age is designated as the chief judge, and performs administrative duties in addition to hearing cases. The chief judge serves for a maximum term of seven years. Each court of appeals judge is appointed for life. There are 167 judges on the 12 regional courts of appeals.

In the year ending June 30, 1992, the 12 regional U.S. courts of appeals had a total caseload of 46,032 newly filed cases and terminated 42,933 cases.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was created in 1982, by the merging of the U.S. Court of Claims and the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. The court hears appeals in cases from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals, the International Trade Commission, the Board of Contract Appeals, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the Merit Systems Protection Board. The Federal Circuit also hears appeals from certain decisions of the secretaries of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce, and cases from district courts involving patents and minor claims against the federal government.

In the year ending June 30, 1992, 1,684 cases were filed in the Federal Circuit, and 1,518 were terminated. The court has 12 judges, who are appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The court is located in Washington, D.C.

District Courts

Most federal cases are initially tried and decided in the U.S. district courts, the federal courts of general trial jurisdiction. There are 94 district courts in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the territories of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. With the exception of the three territorial courts, all district court judges are appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. A district may itself be divided into divisions and may have several places where the court hears cases. Congress authorizes judgeships for each district based in large part on the caseload. In each district, the judge who has served on the court the longest and who is under 65 years of age is designated as the chief judge. The chief judge has administrative duties in addition to a caseload. There are 649 district court judges.

In the year ended June 30, 1992, the U.S. district courts received 226,895 civil cases to decide. Among the types of civil suits that entered the courts in 1992 were civil rights actions (23,419), cases concerning personal injury and damage to property (36,469), and prisoner petitions (46,452). The district courts terminated 239,633 civil cases.

The U.S. district courts received 48,342 criminal cases to decide in 1992, and they terminated 43,493. Of the newly filed criminal cases, the vast majority (69.9%) were felonies. They included homicide (195), tax fraud (849), robbery (1,804), forgery and counterfeiting (1,238), and drug offenses (12,512).

U.S. Bankruptcy Courts

Each district court has a bankruptcy unit that hears and decides petitions of individuals and businesses seeking relief from bankruptcy. Under the federal bankruptcy code, there are four categories of such cases:
* Chapter 7 liquidation, suitable for giving individuals and businesses a fresh start;
* Chapter 11 reorganization, suitable for large corporate debtors;
* Chapter 13 reorganization, suitable for individual wage earners; and
* Chapter 12 reorganization, suitable for family farmers.

In the year ending June 30, 1992, 972,490 bankruptcy petitions were filed, and 857,286 cases were terminated. From 1985 to 1991, the number of bankruptcy petitions filed more than doubled.

Bankruptcy judges are appointed by the court of appeals for a term of 14 years. There are 326 bankruptcy judges.

U.S. Magistrate Judges

Congress created the judicial office of federal magistrate in 1968. In 1990, the position title was changed to magistrate judge. The judges of each district appoint one or more magistrate judges, who discharge many of the ancillary duties of district judges so that the judges can handle more trials. There are both full-time and part-time magistrate judge positions, and these positions are assigned to the district courts according to caseload criteria (subject to funding by Congress). A full- time magistrate judge serves a term of eight years; a part-time magistrate judge's term of office is four years.

Magistrate judges disposed of 500,897 matters in 1992. There are 369 full-time and 110 part-time magistrate judges.

Court Personnel

In addition to judicial officers, courts appoint the following auxiliary staff:
* clerk: Keeps records and supervises administrative affairs.
* reporter: Makes a record of court proceedings and prepares a transcript, and also publishes the court's opinions or decisions (in the courts of appeals).
* librarian: Meets the information needs of the judges and lawyers.
* staff attorneys and law clerks: Assist judges with research and drafting of opinions.
* pretrial services officers and probation officers: Screen applicants for pretrial release and monitor convicted offenders released under court supervision.
* public defenders and other attorneys: Represent indigent (poor) defendants in criminal matters.

Court of International Trade

In the Customs Court Act of 1980, Congress created the U.S. Court of International Trade within the judicial branch to deal with cases involving international trade and customs duties. Previously named the U.S. Customs Court, the court has the same powers in law and equity as the district courts. Most of its cases concern the classification and valuation of imported merchandise, customs duties, and unfair import practices by trading partners. Appeals from this court go to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. During the year ending September 30, 1992, 939 new cases were filed, and 1,393 cases were terminated in the Court of International Trade. On September 30, 1992, 2,537 cases were pending.

The nine judges of the Court of International Trade are appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The court sits in New York City and from time to time at other places.

Territorial Courts

There are federal courts located in the districts of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In most instances, these courts function as U.S. district courts, yet they were created under Article I of the Constitution. These courts, called legislative courts to distinguish them from Constitutional courts, function similarly to state and local courts as well as performing their federal role. The legislative courts have jurisdiction over local cases and also those arising under federal law. These courts may also be given duties by Congress that are not strictly judicial in nature. Unlike the other federal courts, they were created by Congress under the article of the Constitution that grants Congress authority over the territories and other fields of federal power.

The judges of the legislative courts are appointed for a term of 10 years. They are not protected under the Constitution against salary reduction during their terms of office.

Judicial Councils & Conferences

In addition to the courts themselves, the judicial branch of the U.S. government includes several bodies that provide for its administration and self-government.

The federal court system governs itself on the national level through the Judicial Conference of the United States. The Judicial Conference is a body of 27 federal judges. It is composed of the Chief Justice of the United States, who serves as the presiding officer; the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeal; the chief judge of the Court of International Trade; and 12 district judges from the regional circuits who are chosen by the judges of their circuit to serve terms of three years. The Judicial Conference meets twice yearly to consider policy issues affecting the federal courts, to make recommendations to Congress on legislation affecting the judicial system, to propose amendments to the federal rules of practice and procedure, and to consider the administrative problems of the courts.

Much of the work of the Judicial Conference is done in committees composed primarily of federal judges.

Committees of the Judicial Conference
* Executive Committee
* Committee on the Administrative Office
* Committee on Automation and Technology
* Committee on Administration of the Bankruptcy System
* Committee on Administration of the Magistrate Judge System
* Committee on the Budget
* Committee on the Codes of Conduct
* Committee on Court Administration and Case Management
* Committee on Court and Judicial Security
* Committee on Criminal Law
* Committee on Defender Services
* Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction
* Committee on the Judicial Branch
* Committee on Judicial Ethics
* Committee on Judicial Resources
* Committee on Long Range Planning
* Committee to Review Circuit Council Conduct and Disability Orders
* Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure
* Committee on Space and Facilities

Judicial Councils

Every circuit has its own judicial council, which consists of the chief judge of the circuit and an equal number of court of appeals and district judges from that circuit. The council has the power to take steps that may be required to efficiently manage the caseload of the district courts and courts of appeals, including the assignment of judges. Each circuit council may appoint a circuit executive to assist with the administrative responsibilities of the circuit, working closely with the chief judge and the council. Each circuit is required by law to meet in a judicial conference attended by all the court of appeals, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges of the circuit. The judges and invited members of the bar discuss common problems and make recommendations for improving the administration of justice in the circuit.

Administrative Office of the United States Courts

Many support functions for the federal court system are performed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO). The AO was created in 1939 by Congress as an administrative body for the courts that functions independently of the executive branch. The courts formerly had received such services from the Department of Justice.

The AO is directed and supervised by the Judicial Conference. In that capacity, the AO prepares and submits the budget and legislative agenda for the courts to the Judicial Conference for transmittal to Congress. The AO monitors legislation that affects federal court operations and personnel, and also provides administrative assistance to the court of appeals, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges, clerks of court, pretrial services officers, probation officers, court reporters, public defenders, and other court personnel. The AO performs audits (financial examinations of court accounts); manages funds for the operation of the courts; compiles and publishes statistics on the volume and distribution of the business in the courts; and recommends plans and strategies to efficiently manage court business.

To support the Judicial Conference of the United States, the AO supplies a professional secretariat, legal and statistical services, and conducts studies of court procedures. As the secretary to the Conference, the AO director furnishes the professional support to its committees. The AO also maintains liaison with various groups interested in court operations, including committees of Congress, executive branch agencies, state courts, and the public.

The director of the AO is appointed by the Chief Justice after consultation with the Judicial Conference. The agency's headquarters are located in Washington, D.C.

Federal Judicial Center

Congress established the Federal Judicial Center in 1967 "to further the development and adoption of improved judicial administration in the courts of the United States."

The FJC has five primary functions: to conduct research and study the operation of the federal courts;
* to develop and present for consideration by the Judicial Conference recommendations for improvement of the administration of the federal courts;
* to stimulate, create, develop, and conduct programs of continuing education and training for personnel of the judicial branch;
* to provide, if requested by the Conference or a committee chair, staff assistance to the Judicial Conference and its committees;
* and to cooperate with the State Justice Institute in the establishment and coordination of research and programs concerning the administration of justice.

The FJC is governed by a board composed of the Chief Justice of the United States (chairman), six judges elected by the Judicial Conference (two court of appeals judges, three district judges, one bankruptcy judge), and the director of the Administrative Office. The FJC director is appointed by the board.

The FJC's headquarters are located in Washington, D.C.

Article I Courts

In addition to the three territorial courts previously mentioned, Congress exercised its power under Article I of the Constitution to establish the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Tax Court.

U.S. Court of Military Appeals

The U.S. Court of Military Appeals was created by Congress in 1951. At that time, Congress also enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which established a military judicial system. This system was designed to balance the need to maintain discipline in the armed forces and to give members of the military services who are accused of crimes rights paralleling those of accused persons in the civilian community.

The court's jurisdiction is worldwide but encompasses only questions of law arising from trials by court-martial in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard in cases where a death sentence is imposed, where a case is certified for review by the Judge Advocate General of the accused's service, or where the accused, who faces a severe sentence, petitions and shows good cause for further review. Such cases are subject to further review by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court may also review cases in which the court grants extraordinary relief. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review decisions of the military appellate courts in which the United States has taken an appeal from rulings by military judges during trials by court- martial. In the year ended September 30, 1992, 1,541 cases were filed in the U.S. Court of Military Appeals and 1,380 cases were terminated.

The five judges of the Court of Military Appeals are civilians appointed for 15-year terms by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The chief judge serves for five years and is succeeded by the next senior judge on the court. The court is located in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals

The U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals was created by Congress in 1988 to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the decisions of the Board of Veterans' Appeals on the motion of claimants. Such cases include all types of veterans' and survivors' benefits, mainly disability benefits, and also loan eligibility and educational benefits. In the year ended June 30, 1992, the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals reviewed 1,931 cases and terminated 1,897. Its decisions are subject to limited review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The court has seven judgeships. The judges of the court are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The court is based in Washington, D.C., but as a national court, it may sit anywhere in the United States.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims, formerly the U.S. Claims Court, was established in 1982 as the successor to the trial division of the Court of Claims, which had been in existence since 1855. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has nationwide jurisdiction over a variety of cases, including tax refunds, federal taking of private property for public use, constitutional and statutory rights of military personnel and their dependents, back-pay demands from civil servants claiming unjust dismissal, persons injured by childhood vaccines, and federal government contractors suing for breach of contract. Most suits against the government for money damages in excess of $10,000 must be tried here. However, the district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over tort claims (a civil wrong or breach of duty) and concurrent jurisdiction over tax refunds.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims also hears appeals of decisions of the Indian Claims Commission and has jurisdiction to review certain cases involving federal government contractor disputes. Either house of Congress may refer to the chief judge a claim for which there is no legal remedy, seeking findings and a recommendation as to whether there is an equitable basis upon which Congress itself should compensate the claimant. Review of decisions in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims lies in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. During the year that ended September 30, 1992, 736 new cases were filed and 989 cases were terminated. On September 30, 1992, 718 cases were pending in the claims court.

The 16 judges of the U.S. Claims Court are appointed for terms of 15 years by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The court's headquarters are in Washington, D.C., but cases are heard at other locations convenient to the parties involved.

U.S. Tax Court

Established by Congress in 1924 under Article I of the Constitution, the U.S. Tax Court decides controversies between taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service involving underpayment of federal income, gift, and estate taxes. Its decisions may be appealed to the federal courts of appeals and are subject to the review of the U.S. Supreme Court on writs of certiorari. In the year that ended September 30, 1992, 30,345 new cases were filed and 34,823 were closed in the U.S. Tax Court. On September 30, 1992, 44,376 cases were pending.

The 19 tax court judges are appointed by the President for terms of 15 years.

The judges of the court elect one of their number to serve a two-year term as chief judge with responsibility for overall administration of the court in addition to a caseload. Retired judges may be recalled by the chief judge for service in the court. In addition, there are currently 17 authorized special trial judges appointed by the chief judge, who serve under rules and regulations promulgated by the court.

The Tax Court hears cases in approximately 80 cities. Its offices are located in Washington, D.C.

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