Federal Courts


Under Article III, section 1 of the United States Constitution, the judicial power of the United States is vested in the Supreme Court and such inferior (lower) courts that Congress may establish. Article III limits the kinds of cases federal courts can hear. Congress has created numerous district courts (trial courts), intermediate appellate courts (Circuit Courts of Appeal) and a variety of other specialized trial courts. There is at least one federal district in each state. State courts, on the other hand, are the products of state constitutions and legislation. They are, however, structured in the same way as federal courts, i.e., various trial and appellate courts. Most legal disputes are handled in the state courts; some kinds of cases can only be heard in the federal courts. When both the state and federal courts have jurisdiction (power granted under law) to hear a case, they are said to have concurrent jurisdiction.


All federal district court and appellate judges, as well as Supreme Court justices are appointed for life by the president of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. There are nine available seats on the United States Supreme Court.

Removal of Federal Judges
Article II, section 4 of the Constitution provides that officers of the United States may be removed from office through an impeachment proceeding. Judges in federal courts can be removed only if impeached for gross misconduct. The House of Representatives is entrusted with the sole power to impeach; the Senate conducts the impeachment trial. A two-thirds vote of the Senate is required for conviction.


Federal jurisdiction, that is, the power to hear cases, is limited under Article III, section 2 of the Constitution. The federal courts can only hear cases that

  • Arise under the Constitution, Laws of the United States and Treaties
  • Affect ambassadors, public ministers and consuls
  • Involve admiralty and maritime matters
  • The United States is a party
  • Two or more states are a party
  • Are between a state and citizens of another state
  • Are between citizens of different states (diversity of citizenship cases)
U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court has the ultimate appellate jurisdiction over federal courts and state court cases involving federal law issues.

Case or Controversy

Federal courts can only hear cases involving a case or controversy – a real and substantial dispute between parties who have an adverse interest. Moreover, the controversy must be ripe, that is, is must be fully developed and ready for a decision.

Advisory Opinions

The Supreme Court will not give advisory opinions regarding the constitutionality of some proposed action or legislation.

Declaratory Judgments

If a legal question is not too hypothetical or abstract, the federal courts will, however, render declaratory judgments; a decision where the court is requested to determine the legal effect of proposed actions or conduct, without awarding damages or injunctive relief (order directing a party to do or refrain from doing an act).


A federal court may abstain, or refuse to hear state law issues if the court feels that the point of law is undecided. In effect, if the federal court abstains, it is permitting the state courts to decide unsettled issues of state law.


Parties bringing constitutional questions before the federal courts must have standing – they must show a real, direct and personal harm arising from the action complained of.

Political Questions
The federal courts will not hear matters involving purely political questions based on the separation of powers doctrine- the legislative branch controls political issues. Matters involving reapportionment, executive privilege, the ability of a grand jury to subpoena documents from the president and the like, are not political questions.


The federal court system consists of three levels; trial courts, courts of appeal and the United States Supreme Court. The United States is divided into 12 judicial circuits, each of which has at several districts.

Trial Courts/District Courts

The United States district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. Most federal cases are filed in the district court. The district court is a court of original jurisdiction – a judicial venue where proceedings are started. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts hear almost all categories of federal cases, including civil and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts.

Specialty Courts

There are a variety of special trial courts that hear only certain types of cases, such as the Bankruptcy Court and Tax Court. The Court of Federal Claims has nationwide jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, unlawful takings of private property by the federal government. The Court of International Trade addresses cases involving international trade and customs issues.

Military Courts

The federal judicial system also includes special courts and rules to deal with military offenses. The Uniform Code of Military Justice governs the military courts; cases are heard in a court-martial proceeding before a jury of military officers. Offenses that are crimes under state law can usually be heard in state courts, as well.

Courts of Appeal

The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. The court of appeals hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. Appeals from cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims are also heard by the Courts of Appeal.

The United States Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice and eight associate justices. Supreme Court sessions are held in Washington, DC.

Original Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction (hear the original case, without it coming to the court through an appeal) in all cases involving ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls and cases in which a state is a party. Congress may not enlarge or restrict the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction.

Appellate Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court hears appeals on federal questions from circuit courts or the highest state courts. It will, however, only hear such cases as it deems necessary to the public interest and affect Americans or groups of Americans generally.

Writ of Certiorari

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court may also be invoked by writ of certiorari – a request for discretionary review. Acceptance of the case on certiorari requires an affirmative vote of four or more justices. Practically all decisions from state supreme courts and federal courts are reviewable by a writ of certiorari. The court may be inclined to grant certiorari in cases where there are conflicting decisions from several federal appellate courts or the highest courts of several states and in cases from state courts or United States courts of appeal involving important but unresolved issues.