The American Court System
Dual Court System
Staffing the Federal Judiciary
Bringing Cases before the Federal Judiciary
1. Dual Court
50 State Court Systems
State Supreme Courts
Intermediate Appeals Courts
State Trial Courts
Municipal Courts and other Courts of
Federal Court System
U.S. Supreme Court
US Courts of Appeal
1 US. Court of Appeal for the
94 US District Courts
US Court of International Trade
US Territorial Courts in Guam, US Virgin Islands, US
· 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
'Lectric Law Library's Legal Lexicon On
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
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
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
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.
'Lectric Law Library's Legal Lexicon On
I Courts *
ARTICLE I COURTS - These are
courts created by Congress under its power under Article I of the Constitution,
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.
U.S. COURT OF MILITARY APPEALS
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.
U.S. COURT OF VETERANS APPEALS
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
U.S. COURT OF FEDERAL CLAIMS
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
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.
U.S. TAX COURT
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
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.
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
Rating Criteria and
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
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
AS OF: 01/2002
2. Staffing the Federal Judiciary
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.
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.
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
Many states limit the number of years that a judge remains on
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
- Cases involving the U.S. government or any agency thereof.
- Cases involving citizens of two different states if the amount of money
involved is at least $10,000
- Cases involving a U.S. national and a foreign national if the amount of
money involved is at least 10,000
- Cases involving two U.S. States. This is part of the original
jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court.
- 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.
- 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 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.