Federal Courts
Chapter 1 - Federal Courts


Article III of the United States Constitution establishes the judicial branch as one of the three separate and distinct branches of the federal government. The other two are the legislative and executive branches. The federal courts often are called the guardians of the Constitution because their rulings protect rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Through fair and impartial judgments, the federal courts interpret and apply the law to resolve disputes. The courts do not make the laws as that is the responsibility of Congress. Nor do the courts have the power to enforce the laws. That is the role of the president and the many executive branch departments and agencies.
The highest federal court in the land is the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to invalidate legislation or executive actions which, in the Court’s judgment, conflict with the Constitution. This power of judicial review has given the Court a crucial responsibility for assuring individual rights and maintaining a living Constitution whose broad provisions are continually applied to complicated new situations. While the function of judicial review is not explicitly provided in the Constitution, it had been anticipated before the adoption of that document. Prior to 1789, state courts had already overturned legislative acts that conflicted with state constitutions. Moreover, many of the Founding Fathers expected the Supreme Court to assume this role in regard to the Constitution; Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, for example, had underscored the importance of judicial review in the Federalist Papers, urging adoption of the Constitution. Despite this background, the Court’s power of judicial review was not confirmed until 1803, when it was invoked by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison. In this decision, the chief justice asserted that the Supreme Court’s responsibility to overturn unconstitutional legislation was a necessary consequence of its duty to uphold the Constitution. That oath could not be fulfilled any other way.2   U.S. Constitution, Article III
The Founding Fathers considered an independent federal judiciary essential to ensure fairness and equal justice for all citizens of the United States. Judicial independence embodies the concept that judges decide cases fairly, impartially and according to the facts and the law, not according to whim, prejudice, fear, the dictates of other branches of government, or the latest public opinion poll. The Constitution promotes judicial independence in two major ways. First, federal judges, including justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, are appointed for life by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, and they can be removed from office only through impeachment and conviction by Congress of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Second, the Constitution provides that the compensation of federal judges "shall not be diminished during their continuance in office," which means that neither the president nor Congress can reduce the salary of a federal judge. These two protections help an independent judiciary to decide cases free from popular passion and political influence. 
Although the details of the complex web of federal jurisdiction that Congress has given the federal courts is beyond the scope of this brief guide, it is important to understand that there are two main sources of cases coming before the federal courts: “federal question” jurisdiction and “diversity” jurisdiction.
In general, federal courts may decide cases that involve the U.S. government, the U.S. Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the U.S. and foreign governments. A case that raises such a “federal question” may be filed in federal court.
A case also may be filed in federal court based on the “diversity of citizenship” of the litigants (the individuals participating in the case), such as between citizens of different states, or between U.S. citizens and those of another country. To ensure fairness to the out-of-state litigant, the Constitution provides that such cases may be heard in a federal court (the litigants may also bring these cases in a state court). An important limit to diversity jurisdiction is that only cases involving more than $75,000 in potential damages may be filed in a federal court. Claims below that amount may only be pursued in state court.
Congress has provided specialized tribunals for initial decisions in cases involving certain federal laws. For example, bankruptcy judges in the federal districts oversee the process by which individuals or businesses that can no longer pay their creditors either seek a court supervised liquidation of their assets, or reorganize their financial affairs and work out a plan to pay off their debts. In addition, administrative law judges based within federal agencies make initial decisions in areas as diverse as labor disputes and telecommunications.
Although federal courts are located in every state, they are not the only forum available to potential litigants. In fact, the great majority of legal disputes in American courts are addressed in the separate state court systems. For example, state courts have jurisdiction over virtually all divorce and child custody matters, probate and inheritance issues, real estate questions, and juvenile matters, and they handle most criminal cases, contract disputes, traffic violations, and personal injury cases.
Diagram of the Federal Court System - Student Handout
The losing party in the trial court in the federal system normally is entitled to appeal the decision to a federal court of appeals. Similarly, a litigant who is not satisfied with a decision made by a federal administrative agency usually may file a petition for review of the agency decision by a court of appeals. Judicial review in cases involving certain federal agencies or programs (for example, disputes over Social Security benefits) may be obtained first in a district court rather than directly to a court of appeals.
In a civil case either side may appeal the verdict. In a criminal case the defendant may appeal a guilty verdict, but the government may not appeal if a defendant is found not guilty. Either side in a criminal case may appeal with respect to the sentence that is imposed after a guilty verdict.
In most bankruptcy courts, an appeal of a ruling by a bankruptcy judge may be taken to the district court. Several courts of appeals, however, have established a Bankruptcy Appellate Panel consisting of three bankruptcy judges to hear appeals directly from the bankruptcy courts. In either situation, the party that loses in the initial bankruptcy appeal may then appeal to the court of appeals.
A litigant who files an appeal, known as an “appellant,” must show that the trial court or administrative agency made a legal error that affected the decision in the case. The court of appeals makes its decision based on the record of the case established by the trial court or agency. It does not receive additional evidence or hear witnesses. The Court of Appeals also may review the factual findings of the trial court or agency, but typically may only overturn a decision on factual grounds if the findings were “clearly erroneous.”
Appeals are decided by panels of three court of appeals judges working together. The appellant presents his/her legal arguments to the panel in a brief that tries to persuade the judges that the trial court made an error, and that its decision should be reversed. On the other hand, the party defending against the appeal, known as the “appellee,” tries in its brief to show why the trial court decision was correct, or why any error made by the trial court was not significant enough to affect the outcome of the case. Although some cases are decided on the basis of written briefs alone, many cases are selected for an oral argument before the court. Oral argument in the court of appeals is a structured discussion between the appellate lawyers and the panel of judges focusing on the legal principles in dispute. Each side is given a short time (usually about 15 minutes) to present arguments to the court.
The court of appeals decision usually will be the final word in the case, unless it sends the case back to the federal trial court for additional proceedings, or the parties ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. In some cases the decision may be reviewed en banc, that is, by a larger group (usually all) of the court of appeals judges for the circuit.
Petition to the U.S. Supreme Court
A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the state Supreme Court, may file a petition for a “writ of certiorari,” which is a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, does not have to grant review. The Court typically will agree to hear a case only when it involves an unusually important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently. The Supreme Court also has original jurisdiction in a very small number of cases arising out of disputes between states or between a state and the federal government. There are also a small number of special circumstances in which the Supreme Court is required by law to hear an appeal.
The justices must exercise considerable discretion in deciding which cases to hear because more than 7,000 civil and criminal cases are filed in the Supreme Court for consideration each year from the various state and federal courts. When the Supreme Court rules on a constitutional issue, that judgment is virtually final; its decisions can be altered only by the rarely used procedure of constitutional amendment or by a new ruling of the Court. However, when the Court interprets a statute, new legislative action can be taken.

Differences Between Trial and Grand Juries - Handout

Qualifications for Being a Juror - Student Handout

Federal Court System - Handout

Qualifications for Being a Juror - Teacher answers

1Honorable Margaret B. Seymour and Paul Horne, Jr. are the contributing editors for this chapter.
2The foregoing was taken from The Supreme Court of the United States, a booklet prepared by the U.S. Supreme Court and published with funding from the Supreme Court Historical Society.  The full booklet is available at