United States federal court system
The federal courts are a branch of the federal government, and include:
- General jurisduction courts:
- Subject-matter jurisdiction courts:
While federal courts are generally created by the U.S. Congress under the Constitutional power described in Article III, many of the specialized courts are created under the authority granted in Article I.
Greater power is vested in Article III courts because the greater control that Congress is able to exercise over Article I courts would threaten the balance of power between the branches of government.
Article III requires the establishment of a Supreme Court, and permits the U.S. Congress to create other federal courts, and place limitations on their jurisdiction. In theory, Congress could eliminate the entire federal judiciary except for a single Supreme Court Justice (who would be the Chief Justice by default). However, the first Congress immediately established a system of lower federal courts through the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Levels of U.S. Federal Courts
The Federal District Courts are the general federal trial courts, although in many cases Congress has passed statutes which divert original jurisdiction to the above-mentioned specialized courts or to administrative law judges (ALJs). In such cases, the federal district courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from such lower bodies.
The Federal Courts of Appeals are the intermediate appellate courts. They operate under a system of mandatory review which means they must hear all appeals from the lower courts.
Finally, the United States Supreme Court is the court of last resort. It generally operates under discretionary review, meaning that it can pick and choose cases (through grants of writ of certiorari) and hear only the non-frivolous appeals that present truly novel issues. In a few unusual situations (like lawsuits between state governments) it sits as a court of original jurisdiction and must hear the case.
The U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for providing protection for the federal judiciary and transporting federal prisoners.
Limitations on U.S. Federal Courts
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as placing some additional restrictions on the federal courts. For example, the doctrines of mootness, ripeness and standing prohibit district courts from issuing advisory opinions. Other doctrines, such as the abstention doctrines and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine limit the power of lower federal courts to disturb rulings made by state courts.
Study of U.S. Federal Courts
Most U.S. law schools offer an elective course that focuses specifically on the powers and limitations of U.S. federal courts, with coverage of topics such as justiciability, abstention doctrines, the abrogation doctrine, and habeas corpus.