Overview of the Federal Court System

The federal court system is mandated by Article III of the United States 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.”) Courts mandated by Article III are called “Article III courts;” judges appointed to these courts are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They are appointed for life, can only be removed by impeachment by Congress, and cannot have their compensation reduced while serving as judges. These provisions are provided in the Constitution to assure the independence of the federal judiciary.

In addition to Article III courts, Congress (whose powers are provided in Article I of the Constitution) can “constitute tribunals inferior to the supreme court.” These courts are called Article I or legislative courts. Several have been established for special types of cases. These include the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Court of International Trade, and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims hears cases claiming money damages from the U.S. Government, federal contract cases, and tax refund cases.

There are four kinds of “Article III” courts in the federal court system: the Supreme Court, 13 Circuit Courts of Appeals, 94 federal district courts and the bankruptcy courts. There are 12 federal judicial circuits, each with its Court of Appeals. There is also a Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit located in Washington, D.C., that hears appeals from several of the Article I courts and appeals of certain types of cases such a patent and trademark cases.

State courts are considered courts of general jurisdiction and hear criminal cases and pretty much all civil cases between private individuals and businesses. Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and can hear only cases that arise under the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes and treaties (these are called federal question cases), and cases between citizens of different states (these are called diversity jurisdiction cases). The federal courts also hear criminal cases involving violations of federal law. Virtually all cases where the U.S. Government is a party are heard in federal courts.

Cases in the federal court system start in the federal district court, which are the trial courts of the federal court system. A dissatisfied litigant can appeal a decision of the federal district court to the appropriate Circuit Court of Appeals. Cases can go from the Circuit Courts of Appeals to the Supreme Court, but for the most part, the Supreme Court gets to decide what cases it will hear.

For more detailed information on the federal court system, see www.uscourts.gov/understand03.