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Thought Leadership

The Federal and State Court Systems

On paper, the federal court structure appears to be a relatively simple and eminently rational arrangement. After all, the system is composed of a single Supreme Court, several intermediate appellate and trial courts, and a limited number of specialized trial courts.  But behind the judicial system’s facade of orderliness is a history of intense political struggle that contradicts the myth of the nonpolitical courts. Article III of the Constitution creates only one court, the Supreme Court, leaving to Congress the power to create such “inferior courts” as it deems necessary.  


The Judiciary Act of 1786, the first senate bill introduced in the very first Congress, created a national judiciary that included the district courts. Although these courts resulted from the Federalist impulse to establish a strong national judiciary, they were also shaped by the Federalists’ need to compromise with the Antifederalists. Hence the federalist forces attained their goal of a national court system, but the Antifederalists insisted in district boundaries identical with state borders a situation that remains to this day.

U.S. District Courts

As trial courts of general jurisdiction for the federal system, district courts hear trials in all federal criminal and civil cases. The district courts also hear what are known as diversity cases: suits between parties from different states when the amount in controversy exceeds 50 dollars. In addition to their trial duties, the district courts are also responsible for the naturalization of aliens, the approval of passports, and the granting of parole to federal prisoners.

Currently, ninety-four U.S. district courts are distributed in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the four territories. Twenty-four states contain more than one district, and the remaining states and territories have one district court each.

In District Courts, a single judge presides over both civil and criminal trials. The district courts have a total of 632 judicial positions, however the number of judgeships assigned to each district varies from to 28. The state of Vermont, for example, constitutes a single judicial district, staffed by one judge. In contrast, the Southern district of New York, which includes Manhattan and the Bronx, has twenty-eight judges assigned to it District courts hear more than two hundred thousand cases each year; and fewer than 10 percent of them are appealed to a higher court. Of those that are appealed, only small fractions are reversed. For most litigants, the district court decision is the final decision.

Courts of Appeals

Courts of appeals or circuit courts serve as the major appellate courts for the federal system. They review civil and criminal cases that are appealed from the district courts. Moreover, on occasion these courts review decisions of the independent regulatory agencies and departments. For example, decisions of the Federal Communications Commission involving the renewal of radio and television licenses can be appealed only to District of Columbia Circuit.

There are twelve U.S. courts of appeals, one for the District of Columbia and eleven others covering regional groupings of states though the circuits include more than one state, no state is in more than one circuit. A thirteenth court of appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, is an appellate court charged with hearing patent and trademark cases.

The twelve courts of appeals of general jurisdiction have 179 authorized judgeships. But, as in the district courts, these judges are unevenly distributed among the circuits. Individual circuits have anywhere from 6 to 28 judges signed to them. Ordinarily, the Courts of Appeals have panels of three judges. However, these panels can vary in membership from case to case.


The Supreme Court

Nine Justices serve on the Supreme Court (SC). But the constitution does not designate a size for the Court; that is the prerogative of the Congress. Since 1869, the SC has been staffed by a chief justice and eight associate justices. The Congress made frequent changes in the size of the SC. Often these changes were thinly disguised efforts to serve partisan political purposes. For example, during the Civil War Congress created a tenth seat on the Supreme Court, assuring President Abraham Lincoln a solid majority on the Court.

According to the Constitution, the Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction. Original jurisdiction, as stated earlier, means that a court is empowered to make the first decision in a particular kind of dispute; it is the court of first instance. Article III limits the Court’s original jurisdiction to cases involving foreign ambassadors and those in which a state is a party. Suits under original jurisdiction account for a very small portion of the Supreme Court’s workload: about 150 such cases since 1789.

For much of the nation’s history, the Court was mandated by the Congress to hear all cases that came to it.  There were complaints by the justices that the workload was unmanageable. Hence the Congress passed the judiciary Act of 1925. Under the provisions of this Act, the Court is given the freedom to select the cases they want to hear

Powers of the Supreme Court

There are more than seven thousand cases brought annually to the Supreme Court, Approximately 90 percent of the cases come by way of a request for writs of certiorari wherein the Supreme Court orders the lower court to send up the record of the case. Therefore, cases are accepted for review by means of the rule of four wherein four justices must vote to consider the case. In more than 95 percent of request for writs of certiorari, appeal is denied, normally without explanation. Thus the court simply notes that certiorari is denied and that the decision of the lower court stands.

The Supreme Court receives many more petitions each year than it can possibly process. Hence, the freedom to accept a limited number of cases as it deems fit is essential for the Supreme Court to operate effectively. However, there are also political advantages to the screening process. The court carefully selects cases for review and hence the justices can and do advance their policy preferences.  Furthermore, the ability to deny review to cases without explanation is helpful in avoiding particularly controversial political issues. For example, the SC avoided ruling on the constitutionality of the undeclared war in Vietnam by refusing without explanation, to grant certiorari to cases raising the issue.