Dual Court System

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The American Court System

  1. Dual Court System

  2. Staffing the Federal Judiciary

  3. Bringing Cases before the Federal Judiciary


1.  Dual Court System

50 State Court Systems

State Supreme Courts

Intermediate Appeals Courts

State Trial Courts

Municipal Courts and other Courts of Limited Jurisciction


Federal Court System                                                              

     Constitutional Courts

          Regular Courts

                  U.S. Supreme Court

                  Inferior Courts

                        12 US Courts of Appeal

     1 US. Court of Appeal for the Federal Circuit

                        94 US District Courts

           Special Courts

                        US Court of International Trade

     Legislative Courts                 

        US Territorial Courts in Guam, US Virgin Islands, US Mariana Islands

  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces

  U.S. Court of Federal Claims

  U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals

  U.S. Tax Court


The 'Lectric Law Library's Legal Lexicon On
* Article III Courts *

ARTICLE III COURTS - These are federal courts established by, or under Article III of the U.S. Constitution which states: 'The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.'

These courts include:

Supreme Court - One court with national jurisdiction;

Courts of Appeals - 12 Geographic-based and one for the Federal Circuit;

District Courts - 94 in 50 states, District of Columbia and Puerto Rico along with their subordinate bankruptcy courts, and;

Court of International Trade.

The federal courts have power to decide only those cases over which the Constitution gives them authority. These courts are located principally in the larger cities. Only carefully selected types of cases may be heard in the federal courts.

The controversies that may be decided in the federal courts are identified in Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution. They include cases in which the United States government or one of its officers is either suing someone or being sued.

The federal courts also may decide cases for which state courts are inappropriate or might be suspected of partiality. Thus, federal courts may decide, in the language of the Constitution, 'Controversies between two or more states; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; [or] between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States.' For example, one state might be sued by another state for the pollution of its air. Since the impartiality of the courts in either state could be questioned, such a suit might be decided in a federal court.

Similarly, the Constitution extends the authority of the federal courts to cases affecting ambassadors, consuls, and other public ministers. The U.S. government also has constitutional responsibility for U.S. relations with other nations. Because cases involving other nations' representatives or citizens may affect U.S. foreign relations, such cases are decided in the federal courts.

The Constitution provides the federal courts the power to hear cases involving the Constitution as a law, laws enacted by Congress, treaties, and laws relating to navigable waters (the sea, the Great Lakes, and most rivers) and commerce on them. The federal courts' jurisdiction also encompasses the many cases that involve or affect commerce among states.

The Constitution describes what cases may be decided in the federal courts. Congress may and has determined that some of these cases also may be tried in state courts, giving federal and state courts concurrent jurisdiction. Congress has provided that suits between citizens of different states may be heard in the federal courts or the state courts, but they may be heard in the federal courts only if the amount in controversy exceeds $50,000. Congress also has provided that maritime cases and suits against consuls may be tried only in the federal courts. When a state court decides a case involving federal law, it in a sense acts as a federal court, and its decisions on federal law may be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.


The 'Lectric Law Library's Legal Lexicon On
* Article I Courts *


ARTICLE I COURTS - These are courts created by Congress under its power under Article I of the Constitution, and include:


There are federal courts located in the districts of Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In most instances, these courts function as U.S. district courts, yet they were created under Article I of the Constitution. These courts, called legislative courts to distinguish them from Constitutional courts, function similarly to state and local courts as well as performing their federal role. The legislative courts have jurisdiction over local cases and also those arising under federal law. These courts may also be given duties by Congress that are not strictly judicial in nature. Unlike the other federal courts, they were created by Congress under the article of the Constitution that grants Congress authority over the territories and other fields of federal power.

The judges of the legislative courts are appointed for a term of 10 years. They are not protected under the Constitution against salary reduction during their terms of office.

In addition to the territorial courts, Congress exercised its power under Article I of the Constitution to establish the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Tax Court.


The U.S. Court of Military Appeals was created by Congress in 1951. At that time, Congress also enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which established a military judicial system. This system was designed to balance the need to maintain discipline in the armed forces and to give members of the military services who are accused of crimes rights paralleling those of accused persons in the civilian community.

The court's jurisdiction is worldwide but encompasses only questions of law arising from trials by court-martial in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard in cases where a death sentence is imposed, where a case is certified for review by the Judge Advocate General of the accused's service, or where the accused, who faces a severe sentence, petitions and shows good cause for further review. Such cases are subject to further review by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court may also review cases in which the court grants extraordinary relief. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review decisions of the military appellate courts in which the United States has taken an appeal from rulings by military judges during trials by court-martial. In the year ended September 30, 1992, 1,541 cases were filed in the U.S. Court of Military Appeals and 1,380 cases were terminated.

The five judges of the Court of Military Appeals are civilians appointed for 15-year terms by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The chief judge serves for five years and is succeeded by the next senior judge on the court. The court is located in Washington, D.C.


The U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals was created by Congress in 1988 to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over the decisions of the Board of Veterans' Appeals on the motion of claimants. Such cases include all types of veterans' and survivors' benefits, mainly disability benefits, and also loan eligibility and educational benefits. In the year ended June 30, 1992, the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals reviewed 1,931 cases and terminated 1,897. Its decisions are subject to limited review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The court has seven judgeships. The judges of the court are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The court is based in Washington, D.C., but as a national court, it may sit anywhere in the United States.


The U.S. Court of Federal Claims, formerly the U.S. Claims Court, was established in 1982 as the successor to the trial division of the Court of Claims, which had been in existence since 1855. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has nationwide jurisdiction over a variety of cases, including tax refunds, federal taking of private property for public use, constitutional and statutory rights of military personnel and their dependents, back-pay demands from civil servants claiming unjust dismissal, persons injured by childhood vaccines, and federal government contractors suing for breach of contract. Most suits against the government for money damages in excess of $10,000 must be tried here. However, the district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over tort claims (a civil wrong or breach of duty) and concurrent jurisdiction over tax refunds.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims also hears appeals of decisions of the Indian Claims Commission and has jurisdiction to review certain cases involving federal government contractor disputes. Either house of Congress may refer to the chief judge a claim for which there is no legal remedy, seeking findings and a recommendation as to whether there is an equitable basis upon which Congress itself should compensate the claimant. Review of decisions in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims lies in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. During the year that ended September 30, 1992, 736 new cases were filed and 989 cases were terminated. On September 30, 1992, 718 cases were pending in the claims court.

The 16 judges of the U.S. Claims Court are appointed for terms of 15 years by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. The court's headquarters are in Washington, D.C., but cases are heard at other locations convenient to the parties involved.


Established by Congress in 1924 under Article I of the Constitution, the U.S. Tax Court decides controversies between taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service involving underpayment of federal income, gift, and estate taxes. Its decisions may be appealed to the federal courts of appeals and are subject to the review of the U.S. Supreme Court on writs of certiorari. In the year that ended September 30, 1992, 30,345 new cases were filed and 34,823 were closed in the U.S. Tax Court. On September 30, 1992, 44,376 cases were pending.

The 19 tax court judges are appointed by the President for terms of 15 years.

The judges of the court elect one of their number to serve a two-year term as chief judge with responsibility for overall administration of the court in addition to a caseload. Retired judges may be recalled by the chief judge for service in the court. In addition, there are currently 17 authorized special trial judges appointed by the chief judge, who serve under rules and regulations promulgated by the court.

The Tax Court hears cases in approximately 80 cities. Its offices are located in Washington, D.C.


Administrative Law Judges


The position of Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), originally called hearing examiner, was created by the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946, Public Law 79-404. The Act insured fairness and due process in Federal agency rule making and adjudication proceedings. It provided those parties, whose affairs are controlled or regulated by agencies of the Federal Government, an opportunity for a formal hearing on the record before an impartial hearing officer. It also provided for a merit selection system administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and statutory protection of the judge's decisional independence from undue agency influence.

Qualifications Requirements
Applicants must be attorneys and have a minimum of seven (7) years administrative law and/or trial experience involving formal administrative hearing proceedings before local, State, or Federal administrative agencies, courts, or other administrative bodies. In addition, applicants must demonstrate that they have had 2 years of qualifying experience at a level of difficulty and responsibility characteristic of at least senior level GS-13, or 1 year characteristic of at least GS-14 or GS-15 Federal Government attorneys actively involved in administrative law and/or litigation work.

Duties and Responsibilities
ALJs prepare for and preside at formal hearings which Federal agencies are required by statute to hold under, or in substantial accord with, provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, Sections 553-559 of Title 5, United States Code. ALJs function as independent, impartial triers of fact in formal hearings in a manner similar to that of a trial judge conducting civil trials without a jury.

Rating Criteria and Procedures
All applicants who meet the minimum qualification and filing requirements will be eligible to participate in subsequent stages of the examination: supplemental qualifications statement; written demonstration; panel interview; and personal reference inquiries.

Opportunities for Employment
There are approximately 1,400 incumbent ALJs in 29 Federal Government agencies at various locations across the continental United States, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Competition for the relatively few positions which may become vacant from year to year is keen. Only very highly qualified applicants whose qualifications substantially exceed the minimum examination requirements should include such a position in their career plans.

Public Law 101-509 established a new ALJ pay system for former GS-15, 16, 17, and 18 ALJ positions established under Section 3105 of Title 5, United States Code. The minimum rate for ALJ positions is set at 65 percent of level IV of the Executive Schedule and the maximum rate is set at 100 percent of level IV of the Executive Schedule.

AS OF: 01/2002  


2.  Staffing the Federal Judiciary

Federal constitutional courts are created under Article III of the U.S. Constitution and all federal judges of constitutional courts (U.S. Supreme Court and the inferior courts) are nominated by the President and appointed for life terms with the approval of the United States Senate.

Federal judges have life tenure.  They can only be removed through impeachment.  They can, however, retire at age seventy.

The salaries of constitutional court judges can not be reduced during their lifetime.  It can be raised.

Life tenure and no reduction in pay was put in the Constitution to assure for judicial independence.  Judges are not to be subject to political pressure.  They are supposed to be politically independent.  Judicial independence is an important principle of American government.

Legislative court judges do not have the same judicial independence.  Their terms are limited, although appointments for 15 years are common.  In theory also, their salaries could be reduced.

State court judges are selected in ways outlined by their state constitutions.  Four different methods are used:

    1.  appointment by the State legislature without the governor.  (Patrician Model)

    2.  election by the voters in either a partisan or non-partisan election (Jacksonian Model)

    3.  appointment by the State governor with approval of the State Senate (Reform Model)

    4.  Missouri Plan.  A non-partisan commission recommends a person to the State governor.  The Governor appoints the person for a limited period of time.  At the end of that time, the person stands for election.  The voters can vote yes or no.  A "yes" vote confirm the judge in office for the rest of his life.

Many states limit the number of years that a judge remains on the bench.

3.  Bringing Cases before the Federal Judiciary

Cases and controversies may be brought before the Federal court system depending on two principles defined in Article III.  These principles depend either on a) the nature of the parties involved or b) whether a Federal Question is raised.

Nature of the Parties Involved

  1. Cases involving the U.S. government or any agency thereof.
  2. Cases involving citizens of two different states if the amount of money involved is at least $10,000
  3. Cases involving a U.S. national and a foreign national if the amount of money involved is at least 10,000
  4. Cases involving two U.S. States.  This is part of the original jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  5. Cases involving a foreign public official.  This is part of the original jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Foreign public officials have diplomatic immunity so for all practical purposes there are no such cases.  This makes this a null category.  In legal language, this is moot.
  6. Federal court by citizens of another state.  The 11th Amendment grants "sovereign immunity" to states from this type of case. 

Categories 1 and 2 generate the most cases for the Federal judiciary.  Most of these cases originate in the U.S. District Courts, which are the trial courts of the Federal system.  We will discuss the original jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court (categories 4 & 5) in the section on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal Questions.

Federal questions are raised when during a court proceeding an issue of Federal Law is raised.  Since Federal law is above conflicting State law, state court judges must apply applicable Federal laws in their State court proceedings.  If a State court judge makes an error in his or her interpretation of Federal law, the case can be appealed to the highest State court and from there directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since more and more State court decisions involve questions of Federal law, more and more State court decisions are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Thus the U.S. Supreme Court is not only the highest appeals court for the Federal court system, it also enforces uniform standards of Federal law within the State court systems.