United States federal courts
|This article is part of the series:
Politics and government of
the United States
The courts are one of the three coequal branches of the federal government, and include:
- Highest court
- Court of last resort:
- Appellate courts
- Courts with geographic-based appellate jurisdiction:
- The eleven numbered United States courts of appeals
- The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
- Courts with appellate jurisdiction over specific subject matter:
- Original jurisdiction
- General trial courts:
- Courts with original jurisdiction over specific subject matter:
- United States Alien Terrorist Removal Court
- United States bankruptcy courts (one in each of the 94 federal judicial districts)
- United States Court of Federal Claims
- United States Court of International Trade
- United States Court of Private Land Claims (1891–1904)
- United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court
- United States Tax Court
While federal courts are generally created by the United States Congress under the constitutional power described in Article III, many of the specialized courts are created under the authority granted in Article I. These various federal tribunals in the United States have different powers, with Article III courts retaining more power because they are independent of Congress, the President, and the political process.
Article III requires the establishment of a Supreme Court and permits the Congress to create other federal courts, and place limitations on their jurisdiction. In theory, Congress could eliminate the entire federal judiciary except for the Supreme Court, although the 1st Congress established a system of lower federal courts through the Judiciary Act of 1789.
The federal courts are staffed by U.S. federal judges appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. Members of the Supreme Court are known as Justices rather than judges. Article III judges can generally serve indefinitely until death, retirement, resignation, or impeachment, while Article I judges are normally required to serve for fixed terms.
Federal judges are assisted by magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges who do not have Article III judicial status, and therefore cannot make final, binding rulings on many issues, but may make preliminary rulings subject to review by an Article III judge.
Levels of U.S. federal courts 
in the United States
The United States district courts are the general federal trial courts, although in many cases Congress has passed statutes which divert original jurisdiction to the above-mentioned specialized courts or to administrative law judges (ALJs). In such cases, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from such lower bodies.
The United States courts of appeals are the federal intermediate appellate courts. They operate under a system of mandatory review which means they must hear all appeals of right from the lower courts.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the supreme court (court of last resort). It generally is an appellate court that operates under discretionary review; meaning that the Court, through granting of writs of certiorari, can choose which cases to hear. There is generally no right of appeal to the Supreme Court. In a few situations (like lawsuits between state governments or some cases between the federal government and a state) it sits as a court of original jurisdiction. Such matters are generally referred to a designated individual (usually a sitting or retired judge or well-respected attorney) to sit as a special master and report to the Court with recommendations.
Appointment and vacancies 
In April 2013, federal court vacancies were at "an astonishingly high level", with 85 of 856 positions unfilled and 4 vacancies on the prestigious United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The high vacancy rate has been attributed to politics, particularly Senate filibustering of potential appointees by Republican Senators. In many cases there is no nominee for the position; however, the Senate has a tradition of senatorial courtesy in which nominees are only considered if the home senators approve. In May 2013 Congressional Research Service published a paper analyzing the vacancies and appointment process.
Related organizations 
- The Judicial Conference of the United States is the policymaking body of the U.S. federal courts. The Conference is responsible for creating and revising federal procedural rules pursuant to the Rules Enabling Act.
- The Administrative Office of the United States Courts is the primary support agency for the U.S. federal courts. It is directly responsible to the Judicial Conference. The AO prepares the judiciary's budget, provides and operates secure court facilities, and provides the clerical and administrative staff essential to the efficient operation of the courts.
- The Federal Judicial Center is the primary research and education agency for the U.S. federal courts.
- The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transfers and consolidates cases in multiple judicial districts that share common factual issues.
- The United States Marshals Service is responsible for providing protection for the federal judiciary and transporting federal prisoners.
- The Supreme Court Police provide security for the Supreme Court building.
Limitations on U.S. federal courts 
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as placing some additional restrictions on the federal courts. For example, the doctrines of mootness, ripeness, and standing prohibit district courts from issuing advisory opinions. Other doctrines, such as the abstention doctrine and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine limit the power of lower federal courts to disturb rulings made by state courts. The Erie doctrine requires federal courts to apply substantive state law to claims arising from state law (which may be heard in federal courts under supplemental or diversity jurisdiction). In difficult cases, the federal courts must either guess as to how a court of that state would decide the issue or "certify" the issue to a state court if the state has provided for such a procedure.
Notably, the only federal court that can issue proclamations of federal law that bind state courts is the Supreme Court itself. Decisions of the lower federal courts on issues of federal law are persuasive but not binding authority in the states in which those federal courts sit.
Study of U.S. federal courts 
Most U.S. law schools offer an elective course that focuses specifically on the powers and limitations of U.S. federal courts, with coverage of topics such as justiciability, abstention doctrines, the abrogation doctrine, and habeas corpus.
See also 
- CM/ECF (Case Management/Electronic Case Files)
- Courts of the United States (outline of all state and federal courts in the United States)
- Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
- State supreme court
- Uniformity and jurisdiction in U.S. federal court tax decisions
- 8 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.
- The Editorial Board. (2013). Courts Without Judges. NYTimes.
- Wheeler R. (2013) What's Behind all Those Judicial Vacancies Without Nominees?. Brookings Institution.
- McMillion BJ. (2013). President Obama’s First-Term U.S. Circuit and District Court Nominations: An Analysis and Comparison with Presidents Since Reagan. CRS.
- People v. Leonard, 40 Cal. 4th 1370, 1416 (2007) (Ninth Circuit decisions on federal law do not bind Supreme Court of California).
- The Federal Judiciary (official U.S. government site)
- United States Federal Courts @ OpenJurist
- Federal Court Concepts, Georgia Tech
- Federal District Court Case Filings
- Creating the Federal Judicial System (PDF)
- History of the Courts of the Federal Judiciary
- CourtWEB, Online Federal Court Opinions Information System