Of the two systems, the federal is by far the less complicated. According to Article III of the 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." In accordance with this directive, the federal judiciary is divided into three main levels.
At the bottom are the federal district courts, which have original jurisdiction in most cases of federal law. Made up of 92 districts, the federal district court system has at least one bench in each of the 50 states, as well as one each in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. There are from 1 to more than 20 judges in each district, and, as with most federal jurists, district court judges are appointed by the President and serve for life. Cases handled by the federal district courts include those relating to alleged violations of the Constitution or other federal laws, maritime disputes, cases directly involving a state or the federal government, and cases in which foreign governments, citizens of foreign countries, or citizens of two or more different states are involved.
Directly above the district courts are the United States courts of appeals, each superior to one or more district courts. Established by Congress in 1891, the court of appeals system is composed of 11 judicial circuits throughout the 50 states plus one in the District of Columbia. There are from 6 to 27 judges in each circuit. In addition to hearing appeals from their respective district courts, the courts of appeals have original jurisdiction in cases involving a challenge to an order of a federal regulatory agency, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The highest court in the federal system is the Supreme Court of the United States, the only federal court explicitly mandated by the Constitution. Since 1869 it has been composed of one chief justice and eight associate justices. The Supreme Court sits in Washington, D.C., and has final jurisdiction on all cases that it hears. The high court may review decisions made by the U.S. courts of appeals, and it may also choose to hear appeals from state appellate courts if a constitutional or other federal issue is involved. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in a limited number of cases, including those that involve high-ranking diplomats of other nations or those between two U.S. states.
In addition, the federal judiciary maintains a group of courts that handle certain limited types of disputes. Included among such special federal courts are the Court of Federal Claims, which adjudicates monetary claims against the U.S. government, and the Tax Court. Special court judges, unlike those in the three main levels of the federal judiciary, do not serve for life. The U.S. armed forces have courts-martial for cases involving military personnel (see military law).
At the end of the 1990s, controversy had arisen over the response of federal appeals courts to steadily increasing caseloads. Critics charged that the courts were saving few cases for full consideration and were perfunctorily affirming many lower court decisions rather than publishing reasoned opinions; many felt that this practice was eroding confidence in the system and was denying litigants a chance for further review by the Supreme Court. Defenders of the practice responded that it was necessary if speedy resolution of cases were to occur.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.