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Federal Courts, Judges, and the Law

The judicial system of the United States contains federal and state courts. Federal courts hear certain types of legal issues. Most court cases take place at the state and local levels.

The Court System: Federal

Federal courts hear federal crimes, such as terrorism or drug trafficking. They also hear particular civil cases.

  • Cases with questions about federal statutes or the U.S. Constitution
  • Diversity cases, where the parties are from different states
  • Cases where one party is from a foreign country and the amount at issue is greater than $75,000
  • Cases where the federal government is a party

In the federal court system, there are 94 judicial districts. Each state has at least one district court, and some, such as California and Texas, have as many as four. Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia also have a district court.

Bankruptcy courts, tax courts, and specialized courts such as the Court of Federal Claims exist at the district court level.

Each of the 94 district courts belongs to one of the 13 judicial circuits. Each of the circuits has an appellate court. When you hear of something decided by the 9th Circuit or the 11th Circuit, this is who made the ruling. The federal appellate courts have three judges. They don't have jury trials.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in America. The U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court (Article III). The early case Marbury v. Madison created the concept of judicial review, making the Court the final arbiter of legal matters. Unlike the other courts, which must hear all cases brought before them, the Supreme Court only hears a limited number of cases yearly. This process, called "granting certiorari," ensures that the Court only reviews cases with legal or constitutional significance.

The Court System: Judges

The president must nominate all federal judges. At the district and appellate court levels, senators have a procedure to select potential nominees in their states. As vacancies happen, senators present these lists to the president, who reviews the names and makes nominations. Nominees are subject to review and a two-thirds approval by the Senate.

Federal judges serve for life, subject to removal for impeachment for misconduct or serious crimes. Most judges retire late in life, like other government employees. Judges are subject to private and public censure if their behavior in court goes beyond ethical standards. Judges must remove ("recuse") themselves from cases where they have a personal interest or cannot be impartial.

Within government agencies, administrative law judges can hear disputes on narrow areas of law. Administrative law judges (ALJs) hear administrative disputes outside a court hearing. For instance, workers' compensation denials go before an ALJ before the case goes to court. ALJs allow parties to have a case resolved by a neutral arbiter while still having a judge hear the matter.

The Court System: Law

Federal courts can only hear cases based on the U.S. Constitution or federal statute. This is "original jurisdiction." Some types of cases can be in state or federal court. If state law and federal laws overlap, parties can bring cases in either court.

Federal court rules allow state cases to be under "diversity jurisdiction." In civil lawsuits, parties can transfer or "remove" a case to federal court if the parties are from different states and the total amount of the case (the "amount in controversy") is more than $75,000. State laws ban "venue shopping" or looking for a friendly court, so removing to federal court is one way to get a different judge.

Criminal cases are not subject to diversity rules. States must hear all felonies and misdemeanors committed under state law, and federal courts may only hear federal crimes. Criminal matters are only heard in federal court when a defendant has exhausted all appeals at the state level.

Stare Decisis

All courts operate on the legal principle of stare decisis. This means "let the decision stand." Courts rely on previous court decisions when making rulings on current cases. Lower courts particularly depend on case law when ruling on cases.

Supreme Court justices sometimes overturn long-standing decisions. One of the most recent was the overturning of Roe v. Wade with the newer ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. Lower courts may reinterpret existing laws or validate new laws, but the Supreme Court has the final say in whether a law or a decision may stand.

The State Courts

The state court structure mirrors the federal court system in most respects. State trial courts, usually called circuit or district courts, hear civil and criminal cases. The courts of appeal review the verdicts. The state supreme court (the "court of last resort") is the highest court in the state.

State courts may have county courts below the circuit court (Florida uses this system) or municipal courts to handle local matters, such as traffic tickets. States often have specialized courts for family law, juvenile issues, probate, and small claims.

State courts may only enforce state laws. If an issue involves the application of federal law, the case goes to federal court.

If you're going to court, state or federal, be prepared with an attorney to represent your interests.

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