How is the federal court system set up?

The federal court system consists of three tiers. At the bottom are the federal district courts, also called trial courts. In the middle are the federal appeals courts, also known as the circuit courts of appeal. At the top is the Supreme Court. Only the Supreme Court is mentioned in Article III of the Constitution, which leaves it to Congress to establish "such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." (Even the number of Justices is left up to Congress.) Congress has also set up some specialized federal courts concerned with matters such as taxes and claims.

What role do the federal district courts play?

The federal district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil lawsuits and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Each judicial district has one or more federal judges.

What role do the federal appeals courts play?

Cases appealed from district courts go to the appeals, or circuit, courts. The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a US Court of Appeals. Generally, an appeal must be based on a claim that the district court judge committed a legal error. A court of appeals also may review the factual findings of the district court or agency, but typically will overturn a decision on factual grounds only if the findings were clearly erroneous.

Why are federal appeals court judges so important?

Because so few cases are taken for review by the Supreme Court, federal appeals court judges wield tremendous power. If the Supreme Court turns down an appeal, the decision made by the federal appeals court applies to all the states in its circuit (although not to any other states). Each case that is appealed is heard by a panel of three judges selected in rotation from all the judges on the appeals, or circuit, court. The losing party can ask all the judges to review the panel's decision (called an en banc review), but such reviews are uncommon. So even a few individual judges can be crucial to the outcome of a case.

How do federal and state courts differ?

In general, federal courts may decide cases that involve the US government, the US Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the US and foreign governments. A case also may be filed in federal court if it involves residents of different states, or US citizens and those of another country, although only cases involving more than $75,000 in potential damages may be filed in a federal court. By federal law, federal courts also have jurisdiction over all bankruptcy matters. But the great majority of legal disputes in American courts are addressed in the separate state court systems under state law. For example, state courts have jurisdiction over virtually all divorce and child custody matters, probate and inheritance issues, real estate questions, and juvenile matters, and they handle most criminal cases, contract disputes, traffic violations, and personal injury cases.

How many federal judges are there?

There are 735 federal district judgeships, 210 seats on all the federal appeals courts, and nine Supreme Court Justices. The number of judges on each district and each appeals court varies by the size and caseload of the circuit.

Who appoints federal judges?

Supreme Court justices, federal appeals court judges and federal district court judges are nominated by the President. The names of potential nominees are often recommended by Senators or sometimes by members of the House who are of the President's political party. Supreme Court justices, appeals court judges and district court judges are appointed for life.

What role does the Supreme Court play?

The US Supreme Court hears appeals from the federal appeals courts, which must be based on an assertion that the appeals court's interpretation of the law or Constitution was wrong. The Court usually accepts cases only where two or more circuit courts of appeals have disagreed or where an unusually important point of law is in dispute.

The Supreme Court also hears appeals from state supreme courts where it is alleged that the state decision violated the federal Constitution.

In addition, the Court hears disputes between states. These cases are filed directly with the Court and are very rare. A recent example was when New York and New Jersey argued over who owned Ellis Island. Between 7,000 and 8,000 appeals are filed with the Supreme Court every year, but the Court agrees to hear only about 100 of these. When the Court accepts a case, it grants a writ of certiorari -- hence the expression the Court "granted (or denied) cert."

How does the confirmation process work?

After the Senate receives a nomination from the President, it is referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which investigates the nominee’s background. Either of the senators representing the home state of the nominee may object and block further action on the nominee. The objection is recorded on a blue piece of paper called a "blue slip."

Usually the committee holds a hearing and the nominee is the only witness. Interested parties may submit testimony for the record. If the committee votes in favor of the nominee, the nomination is sent to the Senate floor and may be confirmed by a simple majority, as provided in Article II of the Constitution. If a nomination is defeated by the committee, a vote may still take place on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate with no recommendation or with a negative recommendation.

In either case, the tradition of "senatorial courtesy" permits a single Senator to put a "hold" on a nominee, preventing a vote. Sometimes the hold will be unrelated to the nomination; the Senator is simply looking to trade support for something he or she wants in return.

When a nomination reaches the floor of the Senate, senators who oppose the nominee may decide to debate the nomination indefinitely. This means of preventing a vote is called a filibuster. It takes 60 votes to end debate (invoke cloture), or conversely, 41 votes to prevent a vote on a nominee. Confirmation itself requires a simple majority of those present and voting, no more than 51.