The federal court system consists of three levels: District Courts, Circuit Courts and the Supreme Court.
There are 94 District Courts that serve as the general trial courts for both civil and criminal cases. There are a few specialized courts at the District level, including Bankruptcy Court, US Tax Court, US Court of Federal Claims (for claims against the US government) and the US Court of International Trade.
There are also 12 Circuit Courts that provide the first level of appeal from District Court decisions. The Circuit Courts also have direct jurisdiction over patent cases.
The Supreme Court is the final level of appeal. Unlike the Circuit Courts, the Supreme Court only hears cases it elects to hear. Less than 2% of cases appealed to the Supreme Court are actually heard there.
District Court regions align with the US Attorney’s offices around the country. The US Attorney’s are the principal prosecutors in federal court.
The jurisdiction of the federal courts is limited. Federal courts have “Original Jurisdiction” in civil or criminal cases involving a violation of a federal statute, maritime law, a constitutional issue or a treaty.
In civil cases, federal courts also have “Diversity Jurisdiction” for claims under state law against a plaintiff or defendant in another state, provided the claim exceeds $75,000. When both a state law and federal statute are involved, cases can be tried at both the state and federal level. The constitutional protections from double jeopardy do not apply in this circumstance: a defendant can be found innocent in one court and guilty in the other.
All District Court, Circuit Court and Supreme Court judges are appointed by the President subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. They all serve life terms, so these appointments greatly outlive the term of any President. There are 678 authorized District Court Judges, who make a salary of $199,000. There are 179 authorized Circuit Court judges who have a salary of $211,200. Last, there are 9 Supreme Court justices with a salary of $244,400.
There are also Magistrate Judges at the District Court level who handle many of the court processes involved in both civil and criminal cases. They can issue warrants, set bail, oversee discovery and decide certain motions, for example. Magistrate Judges are appointed by a majority of the District Judges in each individual district and serve terms of 8 years, or 4 years if only part-time. There are 551 Magistrate Judges.
The Supreme Court plays a vital role in the government of the country, often deciding issues that our elected legislatures and presidents are unable or unwilling to decide.
Over the years, key areas where the Supreme Court has exercised significant influence include the protection of individual rights under the Bill of Rights, civil rights and protection from discrimination, birth control and abortion, the rights of criminal defendants, capital punishment and the relative power of states and the federal government.
Over the history of the Supreme Court, the interpretation of the constitution has varied widely. In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, freed slaves of African decent and their descendants were prohibited from becoming US citizens. This ruling was overturned by the 13th and 14th amendments to the constitution. In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, segregated facilities were permitted as “separate but equal”. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education case overturned this earlier ruling. In 1986, the Bowers v. Hardwick case upheld a Georgia state law prohibiting certain conduct between homosexual persons. This was overturned in the 1973 Lawrence V. Texas case. Prior to 1973, the vast majority of states outlawed abortion. The Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973 legalized abortion across the country.
All of the issues addressed above are still with us today. There are people who seek to segregate schools, outlaw homosexuality, ban abortions and restrict voting rights. As a result, the selection of Supreme Court justices, who serve life terms, is highly political. Almost 20% of a President’s Supreme Court nominees have failed to be confirmed by the Senate. Given the stakes, expect controversy to be the norm when it comes to the selection of Supreme Court justices.