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The federal judiciary of the United States is one of the three branches of the federal government of the United States organized under the United States Constitution and laws of the federal government. The U.S. federal judiciary consists primarily of the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. District Courts. It also includes a variety of other lesser federal tribunals.
Article III of the Constitution requires the establishment of a Supreme Court and permits the Congress to create other federal courts and place limitations on their jurisdiction. Article III states that federal judges are appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate to serve until they resign, are impeached and convicted, or die.
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All federal courts can be readily identified by the words "United States" (abbreviated to "U.S.") in their official names; no state court may include this designation as part of its name.The federal courts are generally divided between trial courts which hear cases in the first instance, and appellate courts which review specific contested decisions made by lower courts.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the court of last resort. It generally hears appeals from the courts of appeals (and sometimes state courts), operating under discretionary review, which means that the Supreme Court can choose which cases to hear, by granting writs of certiorari. There is therefore generally no basic right of appeal that extends automatically all the way to the Supreme Court. In a few situations (like lawsuits between state governments or some cases between the federal government and a state) it sits as a court of original jurisdiction.
The United States courts of appeals are the intermediate federal appellate courts. They operate under a system of mandatory review which means they must hear all appeals of right from the lower courts. In some cases, Congress has diverted appellate jurisdiction to specialized courts, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.
The U.S. Courts of Appeals are divided into 13 "Circuits": 12 regional Circuits, numbered First through Eleventh, and the District of Columbia Circuit; and a 13th circuit, the Federal Circuit, which has special jurisdiction over appeals involving certain specialized areas of law, such as patents and trademarks.
Although several other federal courts bear the phrase "Court of Appeals" in their names—such as the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims—they are not Article III courts and are not considered to sit in appellate circuits.
The United States district courts are the general federal trial courts, although in certain cases Congress has diverted original jurisdiction to specialized courts, such as the Court of International Trade, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Alien Terrorist Removal Court, or to Article I or Article IV tribunals. The district courts usually have jurisdiction to hear appeals from such tribunals (unless, for example, appeals are to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.)
There are 94 U.S. District Courts, one for each of the 94 federal judicial districts. The U.S. District Courts and federal judicial districts are organized according to U.S. state boundaries. Depending on a state's population, it may be covered by only a single district court, such as the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, or by up to four district courts, such as the U.S. District Courts for the Northern, Eastern, Western, and Southern Districts of New York.
Besides these federal courts, described as Article III courts, there are other adjudicative bodies described as Article I or Article IV courts in reference to the article of the Constitution from which the court's authority stems.
There are a number of Article I courts with appellate jurisdiction over specific subject matter including the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, as well as Article I courts with appellate jurisdiction over specific geographic areas such as the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The Article I courts with original jurisdiction over specific subject matter include the bankruptcy courts (for each district court), the Court of Federal Claims, and the Tax Court.
Article IV courts include the High Court of American Samoa and territorial courts such as the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, District Court of Guam, and District Court of the Virgin Islands. The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico was transformed from an Article VI court to an Article III court in 1966, and reform advocates say the other territorial courts should be changed as well.
Federal judges, like Supreme Court justices, are appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate to serve until they resign, are impeached and convicted, retire, or die.
Under Article I of the federal Constitution, Congress also has the power to establish other tribunals, which are usually quite specialized, within the executive branch to assist the president in the execution of his or her powers. Judges who staff them normally serve terms of fixed duration, as do magistrate judges who assist Article III judges. Judges in Article I tribunals attached to executive branch agencies are referred to as administrative law judges (ALJs) and are generally considered to be part of the executive branch even though they exercise quasi-judicial powers. With limited exceptions, they cannot render final judgments in cases involving life, liberty, and private property rights, but may make preliminary rulings subject to review by an Article III judge.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as placing some additional restrictions on the federal courts. For example, the doctrines of mootness, ripeness, and standing prohibit district courts from issuing advisory opinions. Other doctrines, such as the abstention doctrine and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine limit the power of lower federal courts to disturb rulings made by state courts. The Erie doctrine requires federal courts to apply substantive state law to claims arising from state law (which may be heard in federal courts under supplemental or diversity jurisdiction). In difficult cases, the federal courts must either guess as to how a court of that state would decide the issue or, if that state accepts certified questions from federal courts when state law is unclear or uncertain, ask an appellate court of that state to decide the issue.
Notably, the only federal court that can issue proclamations of federal law that bind state courts is the Supreme Court itself. Decisions of the lower federal courts, whether on issues of federal law or state law (i.e., the question was not certified to a state court), are persuasive but not binding authority in the states in which those federal courts sit.
Some commentators assert that another limitation upon federal courts is executive nonacquiescence in judicial decisions, where the executive simply refuses to accept them as binding precedent.In the context of administration of U.S. internal revenue laws by the Internal Revenue Service, nonacquiescences (published in a series of documents called Actions on Decisions) "generally do not affect the application of stare decisis or the rule of precedent". The IRS "will recognize these principles and generally concede issues accordingly during administrative proceedings." In rare cases, however, the IRS may continue to litigate a legal issue in a given circuit even where the IRS has already lost a case on that issue in that circuit.
The Articles of Confederation provided a clear basis for the initial establishment of United States of America judicial authority by Congress prior to the Constitution. This authority, enumerated by Article IX, allowed for the establishment of United States jurisdiction in the trial of piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, final appeals from state court decisions in all cases of captures of enemy ships, last resort for resolution of disputes between two or more states (including disputes over borders and jurisdiction), and final determination of controversies between private parties arising from conflicting land grants issued by two or more states prior to settlement of which state actually has jurisdiction over the territory. The Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture was the first United States Court established by the United States. Additional United States courts were established to adjudicate border disputes between the states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, Georgia and South Carolina. Lastly, a United States court was established for the Northwest Territory.
When the Constitution came into force in 1789, Congress gained the authority to establish the federal judicial system as a whole. Only the Supreme Court was established by the Constitution itself. The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the first inferior (i.e., lower) federal courts established pursuant to the Constitution and provided for the first Article III judges.
Virtually all U.S. law schools offer an elective course that focuses specifically on the powers and limitations of U.S. federal courts, with coverage of topics such as justiciability, abstention doctrines, the abrogation doctrine, and habeas corpus.
In the United States, a state supreme court is the highest court in the state judiciary of a U.S. state. On matters of state law, the judgment of a state supreme court is considered final and binding in both state and federal courts.
Article Three of the United States Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the federal government. Under Article Three, the judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as lower courts created by Congress. Article Three empowers the courts to handle cases or controversies arising under federal law, as well as other enumerated areas. Article Three also defines treason.
The United States courts of appeals are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal judiciary. There are 13 U.S. courts of appeals, which are divided into 11 numbered circuits that cover geographic areas of the United States and hear appeals from the U.S. district courts within their borders, plus the District of Columbia Circuit, which covers only Washington, D.C., and the Federal Circuit, which hears appeals from federal courts across the United States in cases involving certain specialized areas of law. The courts of appeals also hear appeals from some administrative agency decisions and rulemaking, with by far the largest share of these cases heard by the D.C. Circuit. Appeals from decisions of the courts of appeals can be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In law, certiorari is a court process to seek judicial review of a decision of a lower court or government agency. Certiorari comes from the name of an English prerogative writ, issued by a superior court to direct that the record of the lower court be sent to the superior court for review. The term is Latin for "to be made certain", and comes from the opening line of such writs, which traditionally began with the Latin words "Certiorari volumus...".
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is a United States court of appeals that has special appellate jurisdiction over certain types of specialized cases in the U.S. federal court system. It has exclusive appellate jurisdiction over all U.S. federal cases involving patents, trademarks, government contracts, veterans' benefits, public safety officers' benefits, federal employees' benefits, and various other categories. Unlike other federal courts, the Federal Circuit has no jurisdiction over cases involving criminal, bankruptcy, immigration, or U.S. state law.
The judiciary of Australia comprises judges who sit in federal courts and courts of the States and Territories of Australia. The High Court of Australia sits at the apex of the Australian court hierarchy as the ultimate court of appeal on matters of both federal and State law.
The Judiciary Act of 1891, also known as the Evarts Act after its primary sponsor, Senator William M. Evarts, created the United States courts of appeals and reassigned the jurisdiction of most routine appeals from the district and circuit courts to these appellate courts. Therefore, it is also called the Circuit Courts of Appeals Act.
A supreme court is the highest court within the hierarchy of courts in many legal jurisdictions. Other descriptions for such courts include court of last resort, apex court, and highcourt of appeal. Broadly speaking, the decisions of a supreme court are not subject to further review by any other court. Supreme courts typically function primarily as appellate courts, hearing appeals from decisions of lower trial courts, or from intermediate-level appellate courts.
United States v. More, 7 U.S. 159 (1805), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that it had no jurisdiction to hear appeals from criminal cases in the circuit courts by writs of error. Relying on the Exceptions Clause, More held that Congress's enumerated grants of appellate jurisdiction to the Court operated as an exercise of Congress's power to eliminate all other forms of appellate jurisdiction.
In law, an appeal is the process in which cases are reviewed by a higher authority, where parties request a formal change to an official decision. Appeals function both as a process for error correction as well as a process of clarifying and interpreting law. Although appellate courts have existed for thousands of years, common law countries did not incorporate an affirmative right to appeal into their jurisprudence until the 19th century.