The Federal Court System


The Constitution grants Congress power to create and abolish federal courts, although the United States Supreme Court is the only court that cannot be abolished. Congress also has the authority to determine the number of judges in the federal judiciary system.

In general, federal courts have jurisdiction over civil actions and criminal cases dealing with federal law. Jurisdiction can overlap, and certain cases which that may be heard in federal court can instead be heard in state court. Federal courts can only interpret the law in the context of deciding a dispute. A court cannot approach an issue on its own or in a hypothetical context.

Federal judges, with a few exceptions, are appointed for life — until they die, retire or resign. The Constitution calls for federal judges to act with “good behavior,” and they can be impeached for improper or criminal conduct. A strict code of conduct exists for federal judges, guiding their behavior. Many judges are also considered scholars in their field and spend time speaking, working in the community, teaching or writing in legal journals. Judges who retire, known as senior judges, may be called up on a full- or part-time basis to help with cases. Senior judges handle 15 percent to 20 percent of the workload for appellate and district courts.

Appointed by the President, federal judges are confirmed by the Senate and have their pay determined by Congress. Most federal judges make about the same amount as members of Congress ($150,000 or more), though like some members of Congress, many federal judges have previous experience in more lucrative positions with large law firms. The Constitution doesn’t actually require that judges are lawyers, but so far all federal judges have been members of the Bartrained lawyers.

Each federal court has a chief judge who handles some administrative responsibilities in addition to his or her regular duties. The chief judge is usually the judge who has served on that court the longest. Chief justices for district and appeals courts must be under age 65 and may serve as chief judge for seven years but not beyond age 70.

Each court also has its own staff of employees, including court reporters, clerks and assistants, who are vital to the operation of the court. A court’s primary administrative officer is the Clerk of the Court, who maintains records, is responsible for the court’s finances, provides support services, sends official notices and summons, administers the jury system and manages interpreters and court reporters.

Appeals Courts

There are 12 regional Circuit Court of Appeals and one U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Created in 1891, the number of judges on each court varies from six to 28, but most have 10 to 15. Each court has the power to review decisions of district courts in its region. Appeals Courts, sometimes called appellate courts, can also review orders of independent regulatory agencies if a dispute remains after the agencies’ internal review processes have been exhausted.

Appellate Courts

Appellate courts examine the what took place in the trial court to determine whether the judge misinterpreted the law or made some other legal error that affected the outcome of the case.  Criminal defendants can appeal, and either side can appeal in a civil case.  Whoever files the appeal is called the appellant, and the party on the other side is called the appellee.

There is no trial at the appellate level.  Instead, each side files a written document called an appellate brief.  Afterwards, the parties present their case to a panel of three judges, in a proceeding called an oral argument.  It is important to keep in mind that the appellate court bases its decision entirely upon the record of the case and does not consider new evidence.

If the court grants the appeal, the case is sent back to the trial court for a retrial. If the appeal is denied, the loser can appeal the matter to the Supreme Court of their state.

An appeal to the Supreme Court is called a  Writ of Certiorari.  The Supreme Court is not required to accept an appeal, and often denies them when the matter is routine.  However, if multiple appellate courts have interpreted the law differently, if an important legal principle is at stake or if the case presents an issue relating to how the Constitution is interpreted. or if multiple appellate courts have interpreted the law differently.