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  • The Federal Court System

  • The Federal Court System

    While state courts had their origin in historical custom, federal courts were created by the U.S. Constitution. Section 1 of Article III established the federal court system with the words providing for "one Supreme Court, and . . . such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." From this beginning, Congress has engaged in a series of acts that has resulted in today's federal court system. The Judiciary Act of 1789 created the U.S. Supreme Court and established federal District Courts and Circuit Courts of Appeals.


    Federal District Courts are the lowest level of the federal court system. These courts have original jurisdiction over all cases involving a violation of federal statutes or other instances of statutorily-defined federal jurisdiction. These district courts handle thousands of cases per year.


    Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals are the intermediate appellate level courts within the federal system. These courts are called circuit courts because the federal system is divided into 11 circuits. A Twelfth Circuit Court of Appeals serves the District of Columbia area. These courts hear all appeals from U.S. District Courts and habeas corpus appeals from state courtconvictions. These appeals are usually heard by panels of three of the appellate court judges rather than by all the judges of each circuit.


    The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. It has the capacity for judicial review of all lower court decisions, as well as state and federal statutes. By exercising this power, the Supreme Court determines which laws and lower court decisions conform to the mandates set forth in the U.S. Constitution. The concept of judicial review was first referred to by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers, where he described the function of the Supreme Court as ensuring that the will of the people will be supreme over the will of the legislature (The Supreme Court of the United States, no date). This concept was firmly and finally established in the U.S. judicial system when the Supreme Court asserted its power of judicial review in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803).

    Although it is primarily an appellate court, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in the following cases:

      Cases between the United States and a state.

      Cases between states, and cases involving foreign ambassadors, ministers, and consuls.

      Cases between a state and a citizen of another state or country.
    The court hears appeals from lower courts including the various state supreme courts. If four justices of the U.S. Supreme Court vote to hear a case, the court will issue a Writ of Certiorari. This is an order to a lower court to send the records of the case to the Supreme Court for review. The court meets on the first Monday of October and usually remains in session until June. The court may review any case it deems worthy but it actually hears very few of the cases filed. Of approximately 5,000 appeals each year, the court agrees to review about 200, but may not issue an opinion on each case.

    This information came from a
    US DOJ online article.

    *** Any law, statute, regulation or other precedent is subject to change at any time ***

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