Lower federal courts Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

National-level courts below the Supreme Court created by Congress after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution states that the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme court and in such inferior courts as Congress may ordain and establish. Using the power given it by this article, Congress created courts called Article III or constitutional courts. In addition, Congress established Article I or legislature courts to carry out the legislative powers granted to it.

District Courts

The federal district courtsDistrict courts were established under the Judiciary Act of 1789. They are the trial courts of original jurisdiction and are the only federal courts that regularly employ grand juries (indicting) and petit juries (trial). There are a total of ninety-four U.S. district courts and more than six hundred active judges. Each state has at least one district court; larger states have as many as four. Each district court has at least two judges; some have as many as twenty-eight. District court judges, who have life tenure, are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. These courts may hear as many as 300,000 cases a year, including 50,000 criminal cases.

Congress has created other positions to assist the district court judges. One such position created in 1968 is federal magistrate. There are approximately 429 full-time and 76 part-time magistrates. Full-time magistrates are appointed by the judges of the district court for eight-year renewable terms while part-time magistrates serve four-year renewable terms. Magistrates are assigned to district courts based on caseload criteria. They can issue arrest warrants, hold hearings, set bail, and preside over civil trials and the selection of a jury for a felony trial. In 1996 magistrates were given the title magistrate judge.

There are also approximately 300 bankruptcy judges who are officers of the district courts. These judges are appointed for fourteen-year terms by the court of appeals to serve as adjuncts to the federal district courts. They handle bankruptcy matters subject to review by the federal district judges.

Courts of Appeals

The second level of the federal court system is the U.S. courts of appealsCourts of appeals. Appellate judges review decisions of lower courts based on process. They do not hold trials or accept new evidence. There are twelve courts of appeals and 179 permanent judgeships. Each circuit has 6 to 28 judgeships. These courts normally hear cases in rotation panels of three; however, in important cases, all the judges may hear an appeal. Approximately 50,000 cases are brought to the courts of appeals annually. Less than 1 percent of the cases of the court of appeals are reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Special Courts

In addition to the courts of general jurisdiction, Congress created three Article III courts that have special jurisdiction: the Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Court of International Trade consists of nine judges, only five of whom may be from the same political party. It handles about 3,500 cases involving appeals of U.S. Customs Office rulings. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims was created in 1982 to replace the court of claims created in 1855. This special trial court consists of sixteen judges appointed for fifteen-year terms. It has nationwide jurisdiction over all property and contract damage suits against the federal government in which the amount exceeds $10,000. It also hears appeals of decisions of the Indian Claims Commission. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit consists of twelve judges who sit in panels of three. They hear appeals of cases related to patents from all federal courts and review decisions of the Patent Office and of the Court of International Trade.

Congress also created legislative courts through Article I, section 8, clause 9, of the Constitution, which extends to Congress the power to form tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court. The main difference between a legislative court and a constitutional court is that the judges of a legislative court are not appointed for life. In addition, their duties may consist of more than purely judicial functions. Legislative courts include the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Services, and the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals.

The U.S. Tax Court was created in 1924 and became a legislative court in 1969. It consists of nineteen judges who are appointed for fifteen-year terms. This court reviews decisions of the Internal Revenue Service that are challenged by taxpayers. The U.S. Court of Military Appeals was created in 1951. Its name was changed in 1994 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Services. This court consists of five civilian judges appointed for fifteen-year terms by the president with the consent of the Senate. Its purpose is to apply military law, which is separate from the body of law governing the rest of the federal court system. The U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals, created in 1988, consists of two to six judges who hear appeals of decisions of the Veterans Administration concerning veterans’ and survivors’ benefits.

Congress also established several territorial courts under its power to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territories or other property belonging to the United States. These courts are located in Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Their jurisdiction varies depending on the territory. The judges for these courts are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. With the exception of Puerto Rico, where judges have life tenure, the territorial judges serve terms of four to eight years.

Further Reading
  • Abraham, Henry J. The Judicial Process. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Carp, Robert A., and Ronald Stidman. Judicial Process in America. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1998.

Circuit courts of appeals

Courts of appeals

Judiciary Act of 1789

Judiciary Acts of 1801-1925

Senate Judiciary Committee

Senatorial courtesy

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