We actively engage with and challenge the court system to fight race-based discrimination. Learn about the formation and operations of the U.S. judicial system.
What is a federal court?
There are two types of court systems in this country–the federal court system and the state court system (the state court system includes municipal and local courts). The U.S. Constitution, Article III, establishes the federal court system with the U.S. Supreme Court and permits Congress to create lower federal courts, namely circuit and district courts. Federal courts decide disputes involving the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, disputes between states, and disputes involving more than $75,000 between residents of different states.
At both the federal and state levels there are two kinds of courts: the trial court and the appellate court. The trial court's basic work is to resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right. The appellate court's work is to decide whether the law was applied correctly in the trial court, and in some cases, whether the law is Constitutional.
Within the federal system, there are three primary types of federal courts: 94 District Courts (trial courts), 13 Courts of Appeals (intermediate appellate courts), and the United States Supreme Court (the court of final review).
The District Courts, which are spread out throughout the 50 United States, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands, are the federal trial courts. It is in the district courts that federal cases are tried, witnesses testify, and juries serve. Cases decided in District court can be appealed to the Court of Appeals that serves your state.
The work of the federal courts often affects many people besides those involved in a specific lawsuit.
There are 12 regional circuits and a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Court of Appeals determine if the laws were applied properly in the trial court. The U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, is located in Washington, DC. There are currently nine Supreme Court Justices.
The Supreme Court usually hears cases that have already gone through the federal Court of Appeals system, and sometimes state Supreme Courts. Unlike the Courts of Appeals, the Supreme Court is not required to hear every case that is submitted to it. In fact, the Supreme Court hears only a very small percentage of the cases it is asked to review. If a Supreme Court does not hear a case, the decision of the Court of Appeals is retained. In 2001, although the circuit courts decided over 57,000 cases, the Supreme Court actually heard and decided less than 90.
The work of the federal courts often affects many people besides those involved in a specific lawsuit. For example, the Supreme Court's decision in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education affected many more people than the plaintiff, Linda Brown. As a result of the decision, African American children throughout the country were allowed to attend previously all-white public schools.
Federal courts FAQs
Under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the President nominates men and women to serve on the federal District Courts, the Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. The President sends the nominations to the U.S. Senate, which provides "advice and consent." Normally, an individual may not serve on the court to which he or she has been nominated without being confirmed by the U.S. Senate (the President has the power to make temporary "recess" appointments when the Senate is not in session).
Although the Constitution sets forth no specific requirements for who may or may not serve as a federal judge, there are several informal, unwritten qualifications if an individual expects to be approved by the Senate. First, he or she must clearly exhibit a knowledge of the law and the Constitution. Attorneys, state or lower court judges, or law professors are most commonly tapped to serve.
Members of the U.S. Senate and sometimes Members of the House of Representatives who are in the same political party as the President or those whose ideology is in line with the President's, make recommendations to fill federal judicial vacancies within their state or for the Court of Appeals that serves their state. These recommendations are then reviewed by the Department of Justice and the White House General Counsel's office, which makes recommendations to the President. The President, however, sends the final decision to the Senate.
After the President has submitted an individual's name to serve on a federal court to the Senate, the nomination is referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee can:
Take no action on the nomination (in which case the nomination eventually dies when the Congress adjourns)
Approve the nomination and send it to the floor of the Senate for a vote
Disapprove a nomination, in which case the nomination is usually dead (although in some extraordinary cases a nomination can be brought before the full Senate for a vote, even though the majority of the Senators on the Judiciary Committee felt the candidate was not qualified.)
If the confirmation goes before the full Senate, then the nomination is once again voted on. If a simple majority (50% or more) of the Senators present vote in favor of the nominee, then he or she is confirmed and may then take his or her position on the federal bench for life.
In both the Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, votes may pass or fail by a recorded (roll call) vote or by voice vote.
Under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, once confirmed a federal judge may serve a lifetime appointment, or until he or she retires. Article III also guarantees that the judges' salaries cannot be reduced. These provisions were put in place to ensure that judges were not afraid to make unpopular decisions.
Congress can remove a sitting judge through a very lengthy process known as impeachment and conviction, although it has only chosen to do this a few times in the history of our country.
Under Article II of the U.S. Constitution, the President has the power to fill vacancies that may exist when the Senate is in recess. These appointments are only temporary, however, as they expire at the end of the Congressional session.
As a rule, the President does not make wholesale recess appointments as it may antagonize members of the Senate and may result in some Senators refusing to consider the nominees for a permanent position or voting against other nominations in retaliation.
The federal courts, from the district courts and up to the U.S. Supreme Court, have the final say on issues that have an effect on the lives of every American, including basic civil rights, religious freedoms, voting rights, affirmative action, and in some cases life or death.
The Courts have historically been one of the main avenues we have for promoting and protecting our civil rights. It is for this reason that we must ensure that the men and women who are appointed and confirmed to lifetime appointments to the federal bench are fair minded and not interested in promoting an extremist, right-wing agenda.
We should pay close attention to all judicial nominations. In recent years, a concentrated attempt has been made to pack the district and circuit courts with extreme, right-wing judges. Given the large number of cases whose ultimate determination is made at the District or Court of Appeals level (more than 90%), and the fact that these people are put on the bench for life, we cannot afford to be complacent.
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