Federal tribunals in the United States

Last updated

Federal tribunals in the United States are those tribunals established by the federal government of the United States for the purpose of resolving disputes involving or arising under federal laws, including questions about the constitutionality of such laws. Such tribunals include both Article III tribunals (federal courts) as well as adjudicative entities which are classified as Article I or Article IV tribunals. Some of the latter entities are also formally denominated as courts, but they do not enjoy certain protections afforded to Article III courts. These tribunals are described in reference to the article of the United States Constitution from which the tribunal's authority stems. The use of the term "tribunal" in this context as a blanket term to encompass both courts and other adjudicative entities comes from section 8 of Article I of the Constitution, which expressly grants Congress the power to constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court of the United States.


Article III courts

Article III courts (also called Article III tribunals) are the U.S. Supreme Court and the inferior courts of the United States established by Congress, which currently are the 13 United States courts of appeals, the 91 United States district courts (including the districts of D.C. and Puerto Rico, but excluding three other territorial district courts), and the U.S. Court of International Trade. They constitute the judicial branch of the federal government (which is defined by Article III of the Constitution).

Pursuant to the Appointments Clause in Article II, all members of Article III tribunals are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. These courts are protected against undue influence by the other branches of government. Judges may not have their salaries reduced during their tenure in office, and their appointment is for life—barring removal from office "on impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors". [1]

Under the Constitution, Congress can vest these courts with jurisdiction to hear cases involving the Constitution or federal law and certain cases involving disputes between citizens of different states or countries. Among the matters susceptible of judicial determination, but not requiring it, are: claims against the United States, the disposal of public lands and related claims, questions concerning membership in Indian tribes, and questions arising out of the administration of customs laws and the Internal Revenue Code. [2]

Article I tribunals

Article I tribunals include Article I courts (also called legislative courts) set up by Congress to review agency decisions, military courts-martial appeal courts, ancillary courts with judges appointed by Article III appeals court judges, or administrative agencies and administrative law judges (ALJs). Article I judges do not enjoy the same protections as their Article III counterparts. For example, these judges do not enjoy life tenure, and Congress may reduce their salaries.

The existence of Article I tribunals has long been controversial, and their power challenged numerous times. The Supreme Court has consistently affirmed their Constitutionality, and has delineated their power on several occasions. In Murray's Lessee v. Hoboken Land & Improvement Co. (59 U.S. (18 How. ) 272 (1856)) the Supreme Court ruled that some legal matters, specifically those involving public rights, are inherently judicial, and thus Article I tribunal decisions are susceptible to review by an Article III court. Later, in Ex parte Bakelite Corp. (279 U.S. 438 (1929)), the Court declared that Article I courts "may be created as special tribunals to examine and determine various matters, arising between the government and others, which from their nature do not require judicial determination and yet are susceptible of it". [2]

Article IV tribunals

Article IV tribunals are the United States territorial courts , established in territories of the United States by the United States Congress, pursuant to its power under Article Four of the United States Constitution, the Territorial Clause. [3] Many United States territorial courts are defunct because the territories under their jurisdictions have become states or have been retroceded.

An example of a territorial court is the High Court of American Samoa, a court established pursuant to the Constitution of American Samoa. As an unincorporated territory, the Ratification Act of 1929 vested all civil, judicial and military powers in the President, who in turn delegated authority to the Secretary of the Interior in Executive Order 10264, who in turn promulgated the Constitution of American Samoa, which authorizes the court. As such, the Secretary retains ultimate authority over the courts. [4]

Other United States territorial courts still in existence are:

Article III Court for Puerto Rico

Before 1966, the United States District Court in Puerto Rico was an Article IV court. [5] In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Pub.L.   89–571, 80  Stat.   764, which transformed the Article IV federal district court in Puerto Rico into an Article III court. This Act of Congress was not enacted pursuant to Article IV of the Constitution, the Territorial Clause, but rather under Article III. This marks the first and only occasion in United States history in which Congress has established an Article III court in a territory other than the District of Columbia. From then on, judges appointed to serve on the Puerto Rico federal district court have been Article III judges appointed under the Constitution of the United States. Like their mainland counterparts, they are entitled to life tenure and salary protection.

This important change in the federal judicial structure of the island was implemented not as a request of the Commonwealth government, but rather at the repeated request of the Judicial Conference of the United States. [6]

The District Court of Puerto Rico is part of the First Circuit, which sits in Boston.

Supreme Court rulings limiting the power of Article I and Article IV tribunals

The concept of a legislative court was first defined by Chief Justice John Marshall in the case of American Ins. Co. v. 356 Bales of Cotton , 26 U.S. (1 Pet.) 511 (1828), [7] which is sometimes referred to as Canter, after a claimant in the case. In this case, a court in what was then the Territory of Florida had made a ruling on the disposition of some bales of cotton that had been recovered from a sunken ship. This clearly fell into the realm of admiralty law, which is part of the federal judicial power according to Article III of the Constitution. Yet the judges of the Florida Territorial Court had four-year terms, not the lifetime appointments required by Article III of the Constitution. Marshall's solution was to declare that territorial courts were established under Article I of the constitution. As such, they could not exercise the federal judicial power, and therefore the law that placed admiralty cases in their jurisdiction was unconstitutional.

Tenure that is guaranteed by the Constitution is a badge of a judge of an Article III court. The argument that mere statutory tenure is sufficient for judges of Article III courts was authoritatively answered in Ex parte Bakelite Corp.: [8]

[T]he argument is fallacious. It mistakenly assumes that whether a court is of one class or the other depends on the intention of Congress, whereas the true test lies in the power under which the court was created and in the jurisdiction conferred. Nor has there been any settled practice on the part of Congress which gives special significance to the absence or presence of a provision respecting the tenure of judges. This may be illustrated by two citations. The same Congress that created the Court of Customs Appeals made provision for five additional circuit judges and declared that they should [370 U.S. 530, 597] hold their offices during good behavior; and yet the status of the judges was the same as it would have been had that declaration been omitted. In creating courts for some of the Territories Congress failed to include a provision fixing the tenure of the judges; but the courts became legislative courts just as if such a provision had been included.

In Glidden Co. v. Zdanok , the court made the following statement regarding courts in unincorporated territories:

Upon like considerations, Article III has been viewed as inapplicable to courts created in unincorporated territories outside the mainland, Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 266-267; Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 312-313; cf. Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138, 145, 149, and to the consular courts established by concessions from foreign countries, In re Ross, 140 U.S. 453, 464-465, 480.

Ever since Canter, the federal courts have been wrestling with the division between legislative and judicial courts. The Supreme Court most thoroughly delineated the permissible scope of Article I tribunals in Northern Pipeline Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co. , 458 U.S. 50 (1982), striking down the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 that created the original U.S. bankruptcy courts. The Court noted in that opinion that the framers of the Constitution had developed a scheme of separation of powers which clearly required that the judiciary be kept independent of the other two branches via the mechanism of lifetime appointments. This decision was subsequently revisited and affirmed in Stern v. Marshall , 564 U.S. 462 (2011). However, the Court noted three situations (based on historical understanding) in which Congress could give judicial power to non-Article III courts:

  1. Courts for non-state areas (U.S. territories and the District of Columbia) in which Congress is acting as both local and national government.
  2. Military courts (or courts-martial), under the historical understanding and clearly laid out exceptions in the Constitution.
  3. Legislative courts established under the premise that, where Congress could have simply given the Executive Branch the power to make a decision, it has the lesser power to create a tribunal to make that decision. This power is limited to adjudication of public rights, such as the settling of disputes between the citizens and the government.

The Court also found 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 "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.

Pursuant to Congress' authority under Article IV, §3, of the Constitution to "make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States"; Congress may create territorial courts and vest them with subject-matter jurisdiction over causes arising under both federal law and local law. But "the Supreme Court long ago determined that in the 'unincorporated' territories, such as American Samoa, the guarantees of the Constitution apply only insofar as its 'fundamental limitations in favor of personal rights' express 'principles which are the basis of all free government which cannot be with impunity transcended'." [9]

The Supreme Court noted in Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Schor , 478 U.S. 833 (1986), that parties to litigation may voluntarily waive their right to an Article III tribunal and thereby submit themselves to a binding judgment from an Article I tribunal. However, the Supreme Court later noted in Stern v. Marshall , 564 U.S. ___ (2011), that a party's right to an Article III tribunal is not always voluntarily waiveable in an Article I tribunal for suits at common law. Similarly, in Granfinanciera, S. A. v. Nordberg , 492 U.S. 33 (1989), the Court noted that a litigant's right to jury trial under the Seventh Amendment is also not generally waivable in an Article I tribunal for suits at common law. The Supreme Court further noted in Granfinanciera and Stern the parallel analysis of rights under Article III and the Seventh Amendment.

Article IV judges, in that capacity, cannot sit on the United States Courts of Appeals or decide an appeal as part of such panels. [10]

List of Article I, Article III and Article IV tribunals

Article I tribunalsArticle III tribunalsArticle IV tribunals

See also

Related Research Articles

Federal jurisdiction refers to the legal scope of the government's powers in the United States of America. See the 1962 Federal Report titled "JURISDICTION OVER FEDERAL AREAS WITHIN THE STATES".

Article Three of the United States Constitution Portion of the US Constitution regarding the judicial branch

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.

United States courts of appeals Post-1891 U.S. appellate circuit courts

The United States courts of appeals or circuit courts are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal judiciary. The courts are divided into 13 circuits, and each hears appeals from the district courts within its borders, or in some instances from other designated federal courts and administrative agencies. Appeals from the circuit courts are taken to the Supreme Court of the United States. The district, appellate, and Supreme courts are all authorized under Article Three of the United States Constitution, giving them the exclusive functions as constitutional courts.

United States district court trial court of the United States federal court system

The United States district courts are the general trial courts of the United States federal judiciary. Both civil and criminal cases are filed in district courts, each of which is a court of law, equity, and admiralty. There is a United States bankruptcy court associated with each United States district court. Each federal judicial district has at least one courthouse, and many districts have more than one. Most decisions of district courts may be appealed to the respective court of appeals of their circuit, with a small number instead being appealable to the Federal Circuit, or directly to the Supreme Court.

Federal government of the United States National government of the United States

The federal government of the United States is the national government of the United States, a federal republic in North America, composed of 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories and several island possessions. The federal government is composed of three distinct branches: legislative, executive, and judicial, whose powers are vested by the U.S. Constitution in the Congress, the president and the federal courts, respectively. The powers and duties of these branches are further defined by acts of Congress, including the creation of executive departments and courts inferior to the Supreme Court.

Constitution of Puerto Rico Constitution of the U.S.-affiliated commonwealth

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is the controlling government document of Puerto Rico. It is composed of nine articles detailing the structure of the government as well as the function of several of its institutions. The document also contains an extensive and specific bill of rights. Since Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, two authorities may override the Puerto Rico Constitution: the U.S. Constitution due to the Supremacy Clause, and relevant federal legislation due to the Territorial Clause.

Territories of the United States Political division that is directly overseen by the United States federal government

Territories of the United States are sub-national administrative divisions overseen by the United States government. The various US territories differ from the US states and Native American tribes in that they are not sovereign entities. In contrast, each state has a sovereignty separate to that of the federal government and each federally-recognized Native American tribe possesses limited tribal sovereignty as a "dependent sovereign nation". Territories are classified by incorporation and whether they have an "organized" government through an organic act passed by the Congress. U.S. territories are under U.S. sovereignty and, consequently, may be treated as part of the United States proper in some ways and not others. Unincorporated territories in particular are not considered to be integral parts of the United States, and the Constitution of the United States applies only partially in those territories.

In the United States, the title of federal judge means a judge nominated by the president of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate pursuant to the Appointments Clause in Article II of the United States Constitution.

Supreme Court of Puerto Rico Territorial Supreme Court of the U.S. affiliated island

The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico is the highest court of Puerto Rico, having judicial authority to interpret and decide questions of Puerto Rican law. The Court is analogous to one of the state supreme courts of the states of the United States and is the highest state court and the court of last resort in Puerto Rico. Article V of the Constitution of Puerto Rico vests the judicial power in the Supreme Court, which by nature forms the judicial branch of the government of Puerto Rico. The Supreme Court holds its sessions in San Juan.

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. 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 federal judges are appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate to serve until they resign, are impeached and convicted, retire, or die.

The United States territorial courts are tribunals established in territories of the United States by the United States Congress, pursuant to its power under Article Four of the United States Constitution, the Territorial Clause. Most United States territorial courts are defunct because the territories under their jurisdiction have become states or been retroceded.

United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico United States district court in Puerto Rico

The United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico is the federal district court whose jurisdiction comprises the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The court is based in San Juan. The main building is the Clemente Ruiz Nazario United States Courthouse located in the Hato Rey district of San Juan. The magistrate judges are located in the adjacent Federico Degetau Federal Building, and several senior district judges hold court at the Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Old San Juan. The old courthouse also houses the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Most appeals from this court are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which is headquartered in Boston but hears appeals at the Old San Juan courthouse for two sessions each year. Patent claims as well as claims against the U.S. government under the Tucker Act are appealed to the Federal Circuit.

Northern Pipeline Construction Company v. Marathon Pipe Line Company, 458 U.S. 50 (1982), is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held that Article III jurisdiction could not be conferred on non-Article III courts.

Judicial review in the United States Ability of a court in the US to examine laws to determine if it contradicts current laws

In the United States, judicial review is the ability of a court to examine and decide if a statute, treaty or administrative regulation contradicts or violates the provisions of existing law, a State Constitution, or ultimately the United States Constitution. While the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly define the power of judicial review, the authority for judicial review in the United States has been inferred from the structure, provisions, and history of the Constitution.

High Court of American Samoa highest court of American Samoa, after the U.S. Supreme Court

The High Court of American Samoa is a Samoan court and the highest court below the United States Supreme Court in American Samoa. The Court is located in the capital of Fagatogo. It consists of one chief justice and one associate justice, appointed by the United States Secretary of the Interior, holding office during "good behavior" and removable for cause. As American Samoa has no local federal district court or territorial court, the High Court has also been granted the powers of a federal district court in certain matters while other federal matters are handled by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii.

Under United States Law, an unincorporated territory is an area controlled by the U.S. federal government that is not "incorporated" for the purposes of United States constitutional law. In unincorporated territories, the U.S. Constitution applies only partially. In unincorporated territories, "fundamental rights apply as a matter of law, but other constitutional rights are not available". Selected constitutional provisions apply, depending on congressional acts and judicial rulings according to U.S. constitutional practice, local tradition, and law. As such, these territories are often considered colonies of the United States.

Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506 (1859), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court unanimously held that state courts cannot issue rulings that contradict the decisions of federal courts, overturning a decision by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. The Court found that under the Constitution, federal courts have the final power to decide cases arising under the Constitution and federal statutes, and that the States do not have the power to overturn those decisions. Thus, Wisconsin did not have the authority to nullify federal judgments or statutes. For example, it is illegal for state officials to interfere with the work of U.S. Marshals acting under federal laws. The Ableman decision emphasized the dual form of American government and the independence of State and federal courts from each other.

U.S. state Constituent political entity of the United States

In the United States, a state is a constituent political entity, of which there are currently 50. Bound together in a political union, each state holds governmental jurisdiction over a separate and defined geographic territory and shares its sovereignty with the federal government. Due to this shared sovereignty, Americans are citizens both of the federal republic and of the state in which they reside. State citizenship and residency are flexible, and no government approval is required to move between states, except for persons restricted by certain types of court orders.

United States magistrate judge Judges appointed to assist at US federal district courts

In United States federal courts, magistrate judges are judges appointed to assist district court judges in the performance of their duties. Magistrate judges are authorized by 28 U.S.C. § 631et seq. The position of "magistrate judge" or "magistrate" also exists in some unrelated state courts.

Federal judge salaries in the United States are determined by the United States Congress and are governed in part by the United States Constitution, depending in part on the court on which the judge sits. In particular, United States federal judges confirmed under Article III of the Constitution have compensation that "shall not be diminished during their continuance in office." Other federal judges have salaries that may be adjusted without direct constitutional constraints, however statutory schemes usually govern these salaries. Debates over judicial salaries and their increase and treatment have occurred since the ratification of the Constitution.


  1. Presser, Stephen B. "Essays on Article I: Impeachment". The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. Heritage Foundation. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
  2. 1 2 "Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis, and Interpretation – Centennial Edition – Interim" (PDF). S. Doc. 112-9. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. pp. 647–648. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
  3. NGUYEN V. UNITED STATES (01-10873) 540 U.S. 935 (2003), The United States Supreme Court, retrieved 2010-01-06
  4. Leibowitz, Arnold H. (1989). Defining Status: A Comprehensive Analysis of United States Territorial Relations. p. 420. ISBN   978-0-7923-0069-4. His legal position would not only permit him to investigate and overturn decisions of the judiciary in American Samoa, but the decisions of the Executive and Legislative branches as well. … The very fact that his office exists as an ombudsman, to put it kindly, or as a benevolent dictator — to put it less generously — depreciates all Samoan government institutions and makes the Samoan Constitution adopted in 1960 a giant deceit.
  5. Balzac v. Porto Rico , 258 U.S. 298 (1922).
  6. Senate Report No. 1504, 1966 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2786-90.
  7. The name on the actual slip opinion originally handed down by the Supreme Court was American Insur. Co. v. Canter.
  8. Ex parte Bakelite Corp., at 459-460.
  9. Mormons v. Hodel, 830 F.2d 374 (1987), citing Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138 (1904)
  10. Nguyen v. United States, 539 U.S. 69 (2003).

Further reading