Federal Courts - HCC Learning Web

Federal Courts
1. Creation
a. Constitution created the Supreme Court
b. Constitution authorizes Congress to create lower federal courts
2. Federal Court System
a. Federal District Courts
i. each state has at least one federal district
ii. larger states have as many as four federal districts
iii. total of 94 federal district courts
b. Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals
i. there are 11 circuit courts of appeals + D.C. Circuit + Federal Circuit
ii. each circuit covers several states
iii. appeals are heard based on the idea that a district judge made an error of law
c. Supreme Court
i. ultimate authority on the Constitution
ii. hears most federal cases on appeal
iii. also hears cases appealed from state supreme courts
d. Other Courts—Congress created other special federal courts and appeals courts for specific purposes
(e.g.—military courts)
3. Jurisdiction of Federal Courts
a. cases between parties from two different states
b. “federal question” cases—those arising under federal law
c. civil rights cases
The following is from www.uscourts.gov:
“Bird’s Eye View” of the Federal Courts
The United States has two separate court systems - the federal court system and the state court system of each
of the 50 states.
The federal court system is established by Article III of the U.S. Constitution; state court systems are
established by their respective state constitutions.
The federal courts hear cases that arise under the U.S. Constitution, federal laws and regulations, and treaties.
The state courts hear cases concerning issues that are neither preempted by the federal courts nor denied to the
states by the U.S. Constitution. The federal courts do not hear cases that deal exclusively with matters which
the Constitution reserves to the states.
Federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate. They
hold office during good behavior, typically for life. States select judges in different ways—election, appointment,
or a combination of systems.
There are three levels of courts in the federal court system -- U.S. District Courts, U.S. Courts of Appeal, and the
U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. District Courts are courts of original jurisdiction. This means that these courts hear both criminal and
civil cases. There are 94 U.S. District Courts in the United States—at least one U.S. District Court in every
state. Some larger states, such as California and Texas, have as many as four.
When a jury is present in either a criminal or civil trial, it decides the facts of the case and the judge determines
the law. When a jury is not present, the judge is both the trier of fact and the determiner of law. In the federal
court system, civil juries usually consist of six persons; criminal juries consist of 12. Criminal juries must deliver
a unanimous verdict in order to convict. They must find the defendant guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." In
order to find someone liable in a civil case, a civil jury must base its decision only on a "preponderance of the
evidence"—meaning that one party's story seems more true than not.
The U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals are courts of appellate jurisdiction. This means that if a party is not satisfied
with the decision of the U.S. District Court, it may seek relief from this court. There are 13 U.S. Circuit Courts
of Appeals in the United States, and most of these courts cover a geographical area that encompasses several
states. Usually, a three-judge panel sits on a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. It consists of nine judges, called justices, and is
presided over by the Chief Justice. The Court usually hears appeals from the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals and,
if a federal question has been raised, from the various state courts of last resort. Unlike the U.S. Circuit Courts
of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court has "discretionary jurisdiction," meaning that it decides which cases it will
hear. In fact, it usually decides to hear fewer than 150 of the some 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each
If the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken on a constitutional issue, its decision is final barring (1) a constitutional
amendment to overturn its decision or (2) a later decision of the Court overruling a previous decision. However,
if the Court has interpreted an Act of Congress, the Congress may alter the Court's decision by changing the
Ten Key Facts
1. The Constitution of the United States gives ultimate power to the people, not to the government.
2. The Constitution created a government structure known as federalism, which requires the sharing of power
between the federal government and the governments of each of the 50 states.
3. Under federalism, there are two types of court systems—federal and state. Federal courts have jurisdiction over
issues mentioned or implied in the Constitution. The state courts have jurisdiction over matters not mentioned
in the Constitution and those not specifically denied to the states by the Constitution.
4. The Constitution established three branches of government - the legislative, executive, and judicial. Courts are
the judicial branch. As a co-equal branch of government, the judicial Branch is independent of the legislative
and executive branches. Courts have the authority to interpret the law based on the Constitution without
pressure from the other two branches.
5. Federal courts have the power of judicial review. This means they can review acts of Congress and actions of the
President to ensure that they are permitted by the Constitution. If they are not, the Supreme Court of the
United States declares such acts or actions unconstitutional, and they do not have the force of law.
6. The federal courts hear both civil and criminal cases. Civil cases involve disputes between private individuals,
such as contract disputes. Criminal cases involve offenses against the whole community or society, such as
murder. Courts follow different procedures in civil and criminal cases.
7. Within the federal and state court systems, there are two levels—trial courts and appellate courts. Trial courts,
called U.S. District Courts, are courts of original jurisdiction. They are the first courts to hear either a civil or
criminal case. If parties are not satisfied with the decision of a trial court, they may ask an appellate court,
called a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to review the trial court decision.
8. If parties are not satisfied with the decision of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, they may appeal to the
Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court selects the cases it will hear. The Supreme Court is the
final interpreter of the U.S. Constitution because it is the highest court in the land.
9. In addition to the judges, many other people work together to ensure the success of the judicial system. These
include court staff, U.S. attorneys, federal public defenders, lawyers in private practice, and U.S. Marshals.
10. Citizens play a crucial role in the American judicial system. They help to ensure the fair and impartial
administration of justice by participating directly in the work of the courts as jurors, witnesses, and court
system employees. However, the central role that citizens play in ensuring the rule of law is using courts to
settle disputes peacefully and abiding by court orders.
Four Key Concepts
Constitutional Background
In the United States, ultimate power resides in the people. The people are responsible for giving the government its power.
The power the people give the government is found in the Constitution of the United States. Two main goals of the
Constitution are to clearly define the powers of the government so that it does not become too powerful and to protect
individual rights. To make sure that the government does not become too powerful, the Constitution establishes three
separate branches of government. These include the legislative (Congress) which makes the law; the executive (the
President, Cabinet, military) which enforces the law; and the judicial (the courts) which interprets the constitutionality of
the law. All three branches of the government are equal, and none of the three is more important than the others. To drive
home this point, the Constitution establishes a system of checks and balances whereby each branch of the government can
prevent the other two from gaining an excessive amount of power.
Judicial Review
Perhaps the most important check that the judicial branch has on either the legislative or executive branch is its ability to
declare an act of Congress or an action of the President unconstitutional. Citizens and legal residents agree to abide by the
Constitution in order to live under a government that protects rights. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land in
the United States. No law may be made, or action taken, which violates the Constitution. The law applies to everyone
regardless of position or office. This is referred to as higher law. However, what happens if a part of the government acts
in a manner that is not permitted by the Constitution? What happens if a part of the government violates the rights
guaranteed by the Constitution? The United States is unique among many nations of the world in that its Constitution
provides a solution to such problems. This solution is found in the judiciary; it is found in the federal courts. If citizens or
legal residents believe that an act of Congress or an action of the President violates the Constitution and violates his or
her rights, they have the ability to challenge it in a court of law. If the challenge is successful, the court will strike down
the act or action and it will no longer have binding force. This important power of the federal courts is known as the power
of judicial review. The courts are more than just places where criminals are tried and punished. They also are the ultimate
forum for defending the Constitution and the rights and liberties that are protected by it.
Jury Service
Juries are one of the most important ways that citizens can directly participate in their government. A jury is a panel of
citizens that determines the facts of a legal case. Juries are used in both civil and criminal trials. Civil trials are legal
cases between two private individuals. If a jury finds a person is at fault in a civil case the punishment usually includes
some type of restitution and/or fine. In a criminal trial, a person is accused of breaking the law. The jury then has the task
of determining whether the defendent is guilty or not guilty. The punishment in a criminal trial is usually imprisonment.
Most of the time, all members of the jury must reach the same conclusion concerning fault or guilt. The conclusion is
known as a verdict. Juries help to preserve the democratic nature of the Constitutional form of government by allowing
direct citizen participation in the judicial process.
In order to serve on a jury, a citizen must first meet the following criteria:
U.S. citizen,
At least 18 years of age
Understand the English language
Lived in the judicial district for at least one year
No felony convictions
Of sound mental condition
Judicial Independence
An independent judiciary makes decisions based on law, not outside influences. Constitutional safeguards help to ensure
that the decisions judges render are not influenced by Congress, the President, or public opinion. The Founders realized
that, only by removing the judiciary from the influence of the other branches, could justice be available to those holding
both popular and unpopular views. Federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. However,
judges are not influenced by either of the other branches. Congress and the President may not decrease a judge's salary
while the judge serves on the bench. Judges hold office during good behavior, as stated in the Constitution, typically, for
life. Judges may only be removed from the bench for misbehavior in office, and not simply because their decisions are
unpopular. The judiciary's independence in its legal decision making and its power to review the acts and actions of the
other two branches make it the final protector of rights and liberties. This is possible because the other branches of the
government respect the judiciary's independence and authority. Respect for, and willingness to abide by, the rulings of the
judiciary distinguish the United States court system from many others around the world. An independent judiciary
ensures that all abide by higher law.