The Federal Courts: Introduction

The Federal Courts: Introduction

Author: Joe Colacioppo

After completion of this tutorial, students will be able to:

Describe the structure of the federal court system

Explain the difference between appellate jurisdiction and original jurisdiction

Explain how the federal courts' power of judicial review influences public policy

The judicial system in the United States has two separate court systems: the federal courts and the state courts. In AP US Government, we focus on the federal courts. The federal courts have important policy making power that comes from their power to interpret and apply the Constitution and other laws. Judicial review is the power of the courts to decide whether state and federal laws or executive actions should be null and void because they conflict with the Constitution. The federal courts consist of federal district courts, federal appeals court, the US Supreme Court.

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Federal Court Structure

Federal Courts System

Federal Courts System

A. Federal District Courts
1. Total of 94, with at least 1 in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto
2. Courts of original jurisdiction, the starting point for litigation in the federal
3. The only federal courts in which trials are held and juries sit
4. Each district court has between two and twenty-seven judges depending on
their case loads
5. Jurisdiction includes federal crimes, civil suits under federal law, and civil suits
between citizens of different states where the amount exceeds fifty thousand

B. Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal
1. 13 courts of appeals, one of which is assigned to each of 12 judicial circuits
2. Have appellate jurisdiction: no cases go to them first; they review any final
decision of district courts, and they may review and enforce orders of many
federal regulatory agencies.
3. Courts of appeal normally hear cases in panels of three judges, but important
cases may include more
4. Decisions are made by majority vote of the participating judges
5. Because appellate course decide legal issues, not matters of fact, appellate
courts never have juries.

C. US Supreme Court
1. Highest court in the US; "The Court of Last Resort"
2. Has original jurisdiction in a few specific instances but majority of its cases falls under its appellate jurisdiction
3. Hears cases from US Circuit Courts of Appeals and state supreme courts
4. 9 justices including the Chief Justice; appointed by President and approved by Senate; life terms
5. Chooses which cases it hears

Judicial Activism and Judicial Review