HGov: Judicial System Structure 2

Ninety-four district courts occupy the lowest level in the federal judiciary. These ninety-four courts include 89 federal court districts throughout the country, with at least one district in each state. The five additional district courts are located in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and three other U.S. territories. Each district court is a trial court with original jurisdiction in its region. District courts are where most cases in the federal system begin. In the past, civil cases dominated district court caseloads. Increasingly, criminal cases are crowding the dockets of these courts, with drug violations leading the way. District court cases are tried before a jury, unless a defendant waives that right. In such cases, the judge decides the outcome of the case in what is known as a bench trial.

Thirteen appellate courts occupy the second level of the federal judiciary. These midlevel courts are known as U.S. courts of appeals. Only a fraction of the cases decided in district courts are reviewed by appeals courts. Of these, an even smaller number get heard by the Supreme Court. Of the 13 appeals courts, one deals with cases arising in Washington, D.C. Another 11 review cases in circuits made up of several states. In 1982, Congress added the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to the judicial system. This 13th appeals court reviews cases nationwide that involve special subjects, such as veterans’ benefits and trade issues. The judges who staff appeals courts sit in panels of three to hear cases. Their primary job is to review district court cases to determine whether the district judge made an error in applying the law in that one trial. However, sometimes their decisions have a broader application than the specific case before them.

From time to time, Congress has established special federal courts to deal with specific categories of cases. Staffing these courts are judges expert in a particular area, such as tax or trade law. These special courts include both lower and appeals courts. During times of war, the United States has also set up military tribunals to try members of enemy forces. A military tribunal is a court in which officers from the armed forces serve as both judge and jury. In 2006, Congress authorized the creation of military tribunals to try noncitizens accused of committing acts of terrorism against the United States.

1) Read Chapter 14 Federal Judicial System


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