District Court

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There is at least one, and sometimes more than one U.S. District Court in each state. These are trial courts. There jurisdiction is set by statute and may not exceed the grant of jurisdiction to the federal courts under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

District Courts have existed since the judicial system was established in 1789, but were originally limited to admiralty cases, small claims and misdemeanors. Their jurisdiction was subsequently expanded, and eventually they replaced the Circuit Courts (which were eliminated completely in 1912) as the primary trial court of general jurisdiction in the federal court system, although it was not unusual in the early U.S. for the same judge to serve as both a District Court and Circuit Court judge.

Federal crimes are prosectued in U.S. District Courts. There are two main types of civil cases that are tried in U.S. District Courts (although there are some very rarely used additional types of cases). One type of case is a federal question case. This is a case which, on the face of the Plaintiff's Complaint alone (regardless of the defenses asserted by a Defendant or in a Counterclaim) relies on a federal law, treaty or the U.S. Constitution for relief. The second is a diversity case. This is a case arising under state law in which all Plaintiffs and all Defendants reside in different states on the day that the Complaint is filed, where the amount in controversy exceeds, or could be determined by a jury to exceed $75,000. If a case is not within the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court, it must usually be brought in one of the State Courts.

The most notable exception to these general rules is that large class action cases are within federal diversity jurisdiction even when some Plaintiffs and some Defendants come from the same state.

Normally, a single U.S. District Court judge is exclusively responsible for a case. Sometimes, a magistrate or a bankruptcy court judge or a special master handles a case with the parties able to appeal to the U.S. District Court judge. In rare cases, typically involving either elections or challenges to the constitutionality of a statute that is certain to be challenged, a three judge panel hears the case and it is then appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. These cases make up a dozen cases or so in most years and about four dozen in redistricting season.

Federal courts are governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Senate, by long tradition, will not agree to the appointment of a U.S. District Court judge by the President, unless both Senators from the state where the appointment is made do not object to the appointment.

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