The Federal Court System

The Basics

A. Jurisdiction: the authority of a court to hear and decide a case

B. Plaintiff: the person who files the suit (prosecutor)

C. Defendant: the person whom the complaint is against

D. Criminal vs. civil cases

  1. Criminal cases: the defendant is tried for committing a crime defined by law (ex: murder)
  2. Civil cases: case dealing with a non-criminal dispute (ex: contract dispute)

E. Docket: list of cases to be heard

F. Redress: satisfaction of a claim payment

The Federal Court System

A. No national courts existed under the Articles of Confederation

  1. Led to many problems and chaos
  2. The Constitution fixed this problem

B. Dual court system

1. National judiciary

  • a. Ex: the Supreme Court and other federal courts

2. Each State has its own court system too

  • a. All cases not heard in federal courts are in the jurisdiction of State courts

C. Two types of federal courts

1. Supreme Court

2. Inferior courts: lower federal courts beneath the Supreme Court

  • a. Constitutional courts
  • i. Ex: court of appeals
  • b. Special courts
  • i. Sometimes called “legislative courts”
  • ii. Ex: U.S. Tax Court

Federal Court Jurisdiction

A. Federal courts may hear any case based on:

  1. The subject matter
  2. The parties involved

B. Types of jurisdiction

  1. Exclusive jurisdiction
  • May only be heard in federal courts
  • Ex: those charged with federal crimes such as copyright infringement

  1. Concurrent jurisdiction
  • Both the federal and State courts can hear a case
  • Ex: cases involving citizens of different States

  1. Original jurisdiction
  • A court that hears a case first
  • Ex: federal district courts

  1. Appellate jurisdiction
  • A court that hears a case on appeal
  • Ex: courts of appeal

  1. The Supreme Court exercises both original and appellate jurisdiction

19. AP60X - Jurisdiction

Appointment of Judges

A. The President appoints federal judges and the Senate confirms them

  • Senatorial courtesy
  • A President often chooses judges with views that are similar to his

B. Judicial activists vs. judicial restraint

  • Judicial activists: believe a judge should use his or her position to promote a certain cause
  • Judicial restraint: believe that judges should defer to the executive and legislative branches and should not legislate from the bench

C. Terms and pay

1. Supreme Court and inferior court justices serve for life unless:

  • They resign
  • Impeached (rarely done)

2. Special Court judges have term limits

3. Judges are paid and compensated well

D. Court officers

1. Federal magistrate

2. U.S. Marshals

Supreme Court Justice Challenge

Very Cool Justice Agreement - Interactive

The Inferior Courts

A. District Courts

  • Created by the Judiciary Act of 1789
  • 89 federal districts
  • Have original jurisdiction in both criminal and civil cases
  • Regularly use grand juries

B. The Court of Appeals

  • Serve as the “gatekeeper” of cases to be heard by the Supreme Court
  • 12 courts of appeal
  • There are circuit judges and also one member of the Supreme Court and for each district
  • Have only appellate jurisdiction

C. Other constitutional courts

  • Court of International Trade
  • The Court of Appeals for the Federal Court
SupremeCOURT Primer

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the final authority on the law

1. Members

  • 1 Chief Justice
  • Established by the Supreme Court
  • Currently is John Roberts
  • 8 Associate Justices
  • The number has changed throughout history because it is set by Congress

2. Judicial review

  • The power of a court to determine the constitutionality of a government action
  • Not expressly stated in the Constitution

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

a. Established the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review

b. Out-going President Adams appointed several “midnight judges” including William Marbury

c. The Court found a portion of the Judiciary Act of 1789 to be unconstitutional- 1st time an act of Congress was found to be unconstitutional

d. This case is the reason why the Supreme Court is so important today

3. Supreme Court jurisdiction

  • Both original and appellate jurisdiction
  • Has original jurisdiction for cases between States and ambassadors
  • Mostly hears appeals from lower courts

4. How cases reach the Supreme Court

  1. Thousands of cases go to the Court but it decides on only a few hundred
  • “The rule of four”: 4 of 9 justices must agree on it to go on the docket
  • Of these heard, most are just brief- only about 100 have a full-blown hearing

2. Writ of certiorari

  • An order by a higher court to send up a record in a given case for review
  • How must cases reach the Supreme Court

3. Certificate

  • The lower court is not clear on a legal question and they ask the Supreme Court to clarify
  • Fairly rare

5. How the Supreme Court operates

1. Meets from October to June or July

2. Oral arguments

  • Lawyers are only given 30 minutes

3. Briefs

  • Written documents filed with the Court before oral arguments begin
  • Amicus curiae briefs

i. “Friend of the court”

ii. Filed by persons or groups who are not actually parties in the cases

  • Solicitor General

i. The Federal Government’s chief lawyer

ii. Represents the United States in all cases before the Supreme Court

4. The Court in conference

  • Secret conference among the justices to review the case
  • Presentations are made by the justices in order of seniority

5. Opinions

  • Majority opinion

i. The official opinion of the Supreme Court

ii. Written by whoever the Chief Justice assigns

iii. Often include precedents, or examples to be followed in similar cases

  • Concurring opinion

i. Part of the majority opinion but it emphasizes a point not made in the majority opinion

  • Dissenting opinion

i. Does not agree with the Court’s majority opinion

John Marshall- Marshall Court

ACLJ Amicus Brief

Jay Sekulow on Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow


The Supreme Court opens each day with an “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez” being shouted by a public crier. It means we should listen to what is going on here. It means “hear ye” that are in attendance. When our High Court is in session our nation of law should have heightened awareness. Our Supreme Court tells us what our laws mean.

Here are some of the more important words you might hear when studying about our Supreme Court:

Judicial Review The Supreme Court has the power to determine the constitutionality of laws (Marbury v. Madison, 1803).
Selective Incorporation Over time the Court has applied the provisions in the Bill of Rights to the states via the due process clause of the 14th Amendment (Gitlow v. New York, 1925).

Justice is blind Our ideal that all will be treated equally under the law. Few would deny, however, that politics plays a role in Court nominations and decisions. Watch the confirmation hearings for Stevens’ replacement.

Majority Opinion The Court rationale written to explain how the Court reached a particular decision.

Dissenting Opinion The Court rationale written to explain why certain justices did not agree with the majority opinion.

Pur Curiam Opinion An unsigned opinion.

Amicus Curiae Brief A “friend of the court” brief written by elite opinion hoping to influence the outcome of a court case.

Writ of Certiorari Meaning “to make certain,” this is the formal acceptance given to a petition before the Court. Receiving a writ of certiorari means the Supreme Court will hear your case. Less than 5% of petitions are granted a writ of certiorari.

Stare Decisis A Latin phrase meaning, “let the decision stand.” Our Court system relies upon precedent to make their decisions. Stare decisis guarantees greater equality across our legal system.

Voting Blocs On the current Supreme Court there are conservative and liberal blocs of voters. Justice Anthony Kennedy who holds the “swing vote” often casts the critical vote.

Baker v. Carr (1962) “One man, one vote” got started with this case. It allowed the Court to enter into the “political thicket.”

Roe v. Wade (1973) A critical case that used the “right to privacy” to extend abortion privileges to all women.

Practice Exam

Hour and a Half Video- if you partically enjoy the Supreme Court