- The United States Supreme Court
- The United States Courts of Appeals
- The United States District Courts
- The United States Bankruptcy Courts1
and a few select specialized courts such as the U.S. Court of International Trade.
Judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and District Courts (as well as a few other judges on special courts) are appointed by the President with the advise and consent of the Senate. Bankruptcy judges (who are "Article I" judges as noted below) are appointed by the Court of Appeals for fourteen year terms. Magistrate judges, who do the work assigned to them by District Court judges (usually the "lower level" work)are appointed by the District Court for eight year terms. The judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims who are also not Article III judges are appointed by the President, with the approval of the Senate, for fifteen-year terms.
There are 9 Justices on the Supreme Court, 179 Court of Appeals judgeships, 662 district court judgeships, 350 bankruptcy court judgeships, and 532 full and part time magistrate judges in the United States (of course, there are always vacancies). In 1950, there were only 65 court of appeals judgeships and 212 district judgeships.
Article III limits the jurisdiction of federal courts. Some further limits on the jurisdiction of the federal District Courts is provided by statute. Generally speaking, a case can proceeding in federal court if it the person brings the action based upon federal law ("federal question jurisdiction"), or if the people bringing the suit are all from a different state than the people being sued and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 ("diversity jurisdiction"). Of course, there are many nuances to both the general rules and a number of minor exceptions to the general rules. Generally, the U.S. Supreme Court limits itself to cases that have arisen in the federal courts, or involve a "federal question".
In general, the District Court hears only trial-level court cases. Appeals then go to the Court of Appeals, usually by right (the Court of Appeals also hears appeals from certain federal agencies like the National Labor Relations Board). The Supreme Court can then decide whether to hear a case beyond that. The Supreme Court also hears appeals on federal issues resolved by State Supreme Courts, and in a handful of highly unusual cases (most commonly disputes directly between two or more states), acts as a trial court supervising a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Because the Supreme Court — except in rare instances — does not have to take cases, the majority of federal cases which are appealled are decided in the Court of Appeals. For example, in 2002, the U.S. Courts of Appeal decided 27,758 cases on the merits, while the U.S. Supreme Court decided only 150 cases on the merits, only a little more than two-thirds of which were from U.S. Courts of Appeal (thus more than 99.5% of U.S. Court of Appeals rulings were the final word on the issues decided), despite the fact that 9,406 applications to have cases heard (from both U.S. Courts of Appeal and state courts, with a little more than two-thirds of which coming from U.S. Courts of Appeal) were received. This is why it is extremely important to have good judges at this level, not just in the Supreme Court. Likewise, in a typical state in a typical year, only about one appeal from a state supreme court is decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on the merits. More than 99% of U.S. Court of Appeals and State Supreme Court cases are not reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court on the merits.
Recent fights over appointments to the Courts of Appeals have raised questions over what extent appointments will be "Borked." Of course, the Supreme Court gets all of the press and is the final arbiter, but the chances of an individual citizen having their case finally adjudicated in the Court of Appeals is much higher.
It is also worth noting that while the federal courts described above handle many important cases, the vast majority (well over 90%) of all cases are handled in State Courts.
Reform Proposals and Controversies
- Splitting the 9th Circuit
- Politically Motivated Limitations on Trial Court Jurisdiction
- The Trend Towards Increasing The Sovereign Immunity of States
- Big Bankruptcy Venue Shopping
- The Judicial Appointment Process in the Senate
- Secret Court Dockets
- The Liberal Case For State's Rights
- The Defiant 5th Circuit
1 A number of courts are not "Article I" Courts. These include, the Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the decisions of administrative law judges, and military courts-martial which appeal to the Article I "United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces" before they are eligible for U.S. Supreme Court review). Other than the Bankruptcy Court, these are for most purposes, not a part of the Judicial Branch. While Bankruptcy judges are Article I judges, the Bankruptcy Court itself is technically part of the District Court, as are Magistrate Judges. Article I judges generally do not have life tenure in office. But, anyone in an Article I Court may always ultimately appeal their case to some Article III court. The local courts (i.e. Courts other than the U.S. District Court and Bankruptcy Court) of various federal territories, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia are federal courts, but are also not usually considered to be part of the Judicial Branch.
- Executive Branch
- Judicial Branch
- Legislative Branch