As we learned in chapter 5 at 5.4, the United States has a dual court system—the federal court system and the various state court systems. The federal court system is essentially a three level system; each level derives its judicial power from Article III of the Constitution. The three levels are the US District Courts, US Courts of Appeals, and US Supreme Court.
6.1 US District Courts
The US district courts are the general trial courts of the federal court system. Also, they are the only courts in the federal court system that use juries (with limited exceptions). Each state has at least one federal district. States with smaller populations typically have only one federal district. States with larger populations typically have more than one. For example, California has four federal districts—that is, S.D. Cal. (the Southern District based in San Diego), C.D. Cal. (the Central District based in Los Angeles), N.D. Cal. (the Northern District based in San Francisco), and E.D. Cal. (the Eastern District based in Sacramento).
An interactive map showing the geographic boundaries of the district courts is available here.
What types of cases are heard in the district courts? This question brings us to the concept of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear and decide a particular case. One type of jurisdiction is subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction is a restriction on the types of cases that a court can hear and decide. The district courts have subject matter in three situations: (1) when the United States is a party; (2) when there is a federal question; or (3) when there is diversity of citizenship.
When the United States is a party encompasses both civil cases in which the United States is either a plaintiff or defendant and criminal prosecutions by the federal government. These criminal prosecutions are typically brought by the US Attorney in the federal district where the crime is alleged to have occurred. Federal question means cases arising under the Constitution, a federal statute, or a treaty. Diversity of citizenship means cases between citizens of different states (or a citizen of a state and a citizen of a foreign country) where the matter in controversy is greater than $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs. Generally, a person is a citizen of the state in which he resides. Partnerships and other unincorporated business entities (e.g., LLCs) are citizens of all states where any of their partners or members are citizens. A corporation, however, has two places of citizenship; a corporation is a citizen of its state of incorporation and the state in which its “principal place of business” is located. According to the Supreme Court, a corporation’s “principal place of business” is its “nerve center”—i.e., “the place where the corporation’s high level officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation’s activities,” which is “typically found at the corporation’s headquarters.” In diversity of citizenship cases there must be complete diversity—that is, no plaintiff and defendant may be a citizen of the same state.
In addition, district courts may sometimes have concurrent jurisdiction with state trial courts. Concurrent jurisdiction is the power of both the district courts and state trial courts to hear and decide a case. This normally would occur in diversity of citizenship cases, but it can also occur in many federal question cases. Certain federal question cases involving bankruptcy, copyrights, patents and trademarks, however, are within the federal courts’ exclusive jurisdiction. Where concurrent jurisdiction exists, a plaintiff may choose to file a case either in a district court or a state trial court.
6.2 US Courts of Appeals
The US courts of appeals are the appellate courts of the federal court system. They hear and decide appeals from the cases that were decided in the district courts. They do not conduct trials; parties do not get to retry their cases on appeal. Instead, parties file briefs, which are written statements contending why the district court made a correct or incorrect decision. A court of appeals reviews the briefs and the record of the case (e.g., the trial transcript) to decide if the district court erred. Also, sometimes a court of appeal allows the parties to make short oral arguments. We will learn more about the appellate step in a civil case in chapter 9 at 9.7.
There are thirteen federal circuits—eleven regionally numbered circuits, plus the DC Circuit (which hears appeals from the District Court of DC) and the Federal Circuit (a specialized court of appeals that hears appeals of intellectual property cases from any of the district courts). A losing party in a district court may appeal the decision to the court of appeals for its federal circuit (unless, of course, the case involves intellectual property, then the appeal is to the Federal Circuit). For example, a losing party in any one of California’s four federal districts may appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The interactive map that shows the geographic boundaries of the district courts also shows the geographic boundaries of the courts of appeals. It is available here.
A three judge panel typically hears and decides appeals in the courts of appeals. But occasionally, all of the judges in the circuit will hear (or more likely, rehear) an appeal. This is called a hearing (or rehearing) en banc. En Banc hearings are usually reserved for substantially complex or significant cases, or when the initial three judge panel was unable to reach a unanimous decision (in the case of a rehearing).
6.3 US Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal court system. It is sometimes referred to as “SCOTUS,” which is an acronym for “Supreme Court of the United States.” There are nine justices on the Supreme Court—a chief justice and eight associate justices. Each is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Supreme Court justices, like district court and court of appeals judges, have lifetime tenure.
The Supreme Court is primarily an appellate court. It hears and decides appeals from the various courts of appeals. But—unlike appeals to the various courts of appeals—appeals to the Supreme Court are discretionary. That is, a case will only be heard by the Supreme Court if the Supreme Court agrees to hear and decide it. An appealing party must request that the Supreme Court issue a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari is an order issued by the Supreme Court agreeing to accept an appeal. If at least four of the nine justices agree to accept an appeal, the Court grants certiorari and accepts the appeal. Otherwise, the Supreme Court denies certiorari and the decision of the lower court becomes final. The Supreme Court has consistently stated, however, that a denial of certiorari “imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case.” Today, the Supreme Court grants certiorari in only a small percentage of cases. In fact, out of the more than 10,000 appeals filed each term, the Supreme Court presently accepts approximately 100 cases for plenary review and issues opinions in 80 to 90 cases. The Supreme Court also does not give advisory opinions. Its function is limited to dealing with “cases” and “controversies,” which eighteenth century dictionaries have revealed as synonyms.
In addition to appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction for disputes between or among states and between the states and the federal government. This means that such cases begin and end in the Supreme Court; they are not appealed from the decisions of lower courts. Cases between states are more common than one may expect; and the cases typically involve border disputes. Two recent examples are New Hampshire v. Maine and New Jersey v. Delaware. New Hampshire v. Maine involved a boundary dispute regarding the Piscataqua River. New Hampshire claimed that it owned the entire river and all of the Portsmouth Harbor; Maine claimed otherwise. The Supreme Court sided with Maine, affirming that a 1740 boundary determination by King George II and a 1977 consent judgment between the states barred New Hampshire’s complaint. New Jersey v. Delaware involved a boundary dispute regarding the Delaware River. Delaware claimed that it had the right to deny permits for construction that took place on the New Jersey side of the river; New Jersey claimed otherwise. The Supreme Court sided with Delaware, affirming that a 1682 grant from the Duke of York to William Penn and a 1905 compact between the states gave Delaware dominion, within a twelve-mile radius of New Castle, Delaware (i.e., the distance specified in the 1682 grant), over the river up to the low-tide mark on the New Jersey side.
Further information about the Supreme Court is available here.
6.4 Other US Courts
There are other federal courts besides district courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. For example, US Bankruptcy Courts are also created by Article III of the Constitution. Each federal district has a bankruptcy court that hears and decides the bankruptcy matters for the district. Bankruptcy cases cannot be filed in state court. Unlike other federal judges (who receive lifetime appointments), bankruptcy judges are appointed for 14 year terms.
In addition, Congress has created several courts under Article I of the Constitution that do not have full and final judicial power to decide questions of constitutional law. These courts include the US Court of Federal Claims, the US Court of Veterans’ Appeals, the US Court of Military Appeals, and the US Tax Court.