This page: Supreme Court, District & Circuit (lower/inferior) courts: structure, powers & history; nominations; free speech cases; links to gov't sites & cases.
Left: Blind-fold symbolizes "Justice is blind" to individuals & treats all equally under the law; scale weighs facts objectively; sword - defense & punishment.
An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society.
A judge should maintain and enforce high standards of conduct and
should personally observe those standards,
so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved. The provisions of this Code should be construed and applied to further that objective.
The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it was left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The first bill introduced in the United States Senate became the Judiciary Act of 1789.
The act divided the country into 13 judicial districts, which were, in turn, organized into three circuits: the Eastern, Middle, and Southern. The Supreme Court, the country's highest judicial tribunal, was to sit in the Nation's Capital, and was initially composed of a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices.
For the first 101 years of the Supreme Court’s life -- but for a brief period in the early 1800's -- the Justices were also required to "ride circuit," and hold circuit court twice a year in each judicial district. https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/institution.aspx
Article III of the Constitution established a Supreme Court, but left to Congress the authority to create lower federal courts as needed.
Principally authored by Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, the Judiciary Act of 1789 established the structure and jurisdiction of the federal court system and created the position of attorney general.
Although amended throughout the years by Congress, the basic outline of the federal court system established by the First Congress remains largely intact today.
(Please see below for a list of Congressional Acts regarding the Judiciary)
Journal page from Senate Proceedings on the Bill "An Act to Establish Judicial Courts of U.S. 1789
one Chief Justice, John Jay, and
five Associate Justices:
James Wilson, William Cushing, John Blair, John Rutledge and James Iredell.
Only Jay, Wilson, Cushing, and Blair were present at the Court's first sitting.
The Constitution places the power to determine the number of Justices in the hands of Congress.
passed in 1789
Set the number of Justices at six,
one Chief Justice and five Associates.
Over the years Congress has passed various acts to change this number, fluctuating from a low of five to a high of ten.
The Judiciary Act of 1869
Fixed the number of Justices at nine and no subsequent change to the number of Justices has occurred.
The Court receives approximately 7,000-8,000 petitions for a writ of certiorari * each Term.
The Court grants and hears oral argument in about 80 cases.
* writ of certiorari - A latin word meaning "to be more fully informed." This term describes the process whereby the Supreme Court requests all case records from a lower court for their review.
1. The Judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution,
2. The Laws of the United States,
3. Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;
4. All Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;
5. All Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;
6. Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;
7. Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State;
8. Between Citizens of different States, between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States,
9. Between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
10. In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be a Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.
11. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
12. The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed;
13. but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
(Excerpt from Article III of the Constitution, please see Constitution page for more)
"stare decisis" means stand by what has been decided - Judges often apply this Common Law practice in an effort to apply the law equally in analogous cases previously decided - not arbitrarily.
By using the similar former case as "case law" it can be applied to new cases under review.
* * *
An Adversarial System - The litigation process in U.S. courts is referred to as an “adversarial” system because it relies on the litigants to present their dispute before a neutral fact-finder. According to American legal tradition, inherited from the English common law, the clash of adversaries before the court is most likely to allow the jury or judge to determine the truth and resolve the dispute at hand. In some other legal systems, judges or other court officials investigate and assist the parties to find relevant evidence or obtain testimony from witnesses.
In the United States, the work of collecting evidence and preparing to present it to the court is accomplished by the litigants and their attorneys, normally without assistance from the court. Source: understanding-federal-courts.pdf (uscourts.gov)
The Constitution with Amendments are deemed "the law of the land" and cannot be changed from a judge's bench, but rather by the Legislative branch or States using the methods specified in the Constitution.
Justice is Blind
This term means that laws do not change depending on a particular person or group - Justice is applied equally to everyone under the law.
A judge is not to create or change a law, but to interpret the law as written (similar to a referee who wouldn't change a foul ball to a home run due to a personal preference toward the outcome.)
Adjudication - Generally, a judge hears/processes disputes misunderstandings or competing claims by parties - This includes: Which party has a right or duty, the details of their dispute, and what if any harm resulted in the situation at hand - and often the intent of the parties.
When interpreting statutes judges often determine if statue created unintended consequences, errors and the like.
Front row, left to right: Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Associate Justice Elena Kagan.
Back row, left to right: Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, and Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
The Supreme Court as composed October 27, 2020 to 2022.
Front row, left to right: Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Back row, left to right: Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
RBG (1933 - 2020)
President Clinton nominated Ms. Ginsberg as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and she took her seat August 10, 1993. Justice Ginsberg served on the Court until her death, September 18, 2020.
Seated, from left: Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito, Jr.; standing, from left: Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett M. Kavanaugh
Photo- Fred Schilling (1970- ) for the Supreme Court
Mrs. Brown-Jackson took her seat June 30, 2022. Born in Washington, D.C., on September 14, 1970. She married Patrick Jackson in 1996, and they have two daughters. She received an A.B., magna cum laude, from Harvard-Radcliffe College in 1992, and a J.D., cum laude, from Harvard Law School in 1996. She served as a law clerk for Judge Patti B. Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts from 1996 to 1997, Judge Bruce M. Selya of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit from 1997 to 1998, and Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States during the 1999 Term.
Credit: Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
(Source: U.S. Constitution)
The First Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."
The hallmark of the protection of free speech is to allow "free trade in ideas"-even ideas that the overwhelming majority of people might find distasteful or discomforting.
Abrams v. United States, 250 U. S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting); see also Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 414 (1989).
("If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable").
Thus, the First Amendment "ordinarily" denies a State "the power to prohibit dissemination of social, economic and political doctrine which a vast majority of its citizens believes to be false and fraught with evil consequence." Whitney v. California, 274 U. S. 357, 374 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring) . . .
The First Amendment permits "restrictions upon the content of speech in a few limited areas, which are 'of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.'" R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul, supra, at 382-383 (quoting Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, supra, at 572).
Thus, for example, a State may punish those words "which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, supra, at 572; see also R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul, supra, at 383 (listing limited areas where the First Amendment permits restrictions on the content of speech). We have consequently held that fighting words-"those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction" -are generally proscribable under the First Amendment. Cohen v. California, 403 U. S. 15, 20 (1971); see also Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, supra, at 572.
Disclaimer: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for use in educational activities only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on legislation.
Judiciary Act of 1789 established Courts; its first assembly was in 1790.
There are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, including one (1) Supreme Court throughout the country.
The federal court system has three main levels:
1) District courts (the trial court),
2) Circuit courts which are the first level of appeal, and
3) Supreme Court of the United States, the final level of appeal in the federal system.
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes.
Courts in the federal system work differently in many ways than state courts.
The primary difference for civil cases (as opposed to criminal cases) is the types of cases that can be heard in the federal system.
The federal district court is the starting point for any case arising under federal statutes, the Constitution, or treaties, pursuant to Article III, Section 2, Clause 1;
This type of jurisdiction is called “original jurisdiction.” Sometimes, the jurisdiction of state courts will overlap with that of federal courts, meaning that some cases can be brought in both courts.
The plaintiff has the initial choice of bringing the case in state or federal court. However, if the plaintiff chooses state court, the defendant may sometimes choose to “remove” to federal court.
Cases that are entirely based on state law may be brought in federal court under the court’s “diversity jurisdiction.”
Diversity jurisdiction allows a plaintiff of one state to file a lawsuit in federal court when the defendant is located in a different state. The defendant can also seek to “remove” from state court for the same reason. To bring a state law claim in federal court, all of the plaintiffs must be located in different states than all of the defendants, and the “amount in controversy” must be more than $75,000.
(Note: the rules for diversity jurisdiction are much more complicated than explained here.)
Important to note, the principle of double jeopardy – which does not allow a defendant to be tried twice for the same charge – does not apply between the federal and state government.
If, for example, the state brings a murder charge and does not get a conviction, it is possible for the federal government in some cases to file charges against the defendant if the act is also illegal under federal law.
Criminal cases may not be brought under diversity jurisdiction.
States may only bring criminal prosecutions in state courts, and the federal government may only bring criminal prosecutions in federal court.
Federal judges (and Supreme Court “justices”) are selected by the President and confirmed “with the advice and consent” of the Senate and “shall hold their Offices during good Behavior.”
Judges may hold their position for the rest of their lives, but many resign or retire earlier.
One exception to the lifetime appointment is for magistrate judges, which are selected by district judges and serve a specified term.
They may also be removed by impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate.
Throughout history, fourteen (14) federal judges have been impeached due to alleged wrongdoing.
Each district court has at least one United States District Judge, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a life term.
District courts handle trials within the federal court system – both civil and criminal.
The districts are the same as those for the U.S. Attorneys, and the U.S. Attorney is the primary prosecutor for the federal government in his or her respective area.
District court judges are responsible for managing the court and supervising the court’s employees. They are able to continue to serve so long as they maintain “good behavior,” and they can be impeached and removed by Congress.
There are over 670 district court judges nationwide.
Some tasks of the district court are given to federal magistrate judges.
Magistrates are appointed by the district court by a majority vote of the judges and serve for a term of eight years if full-time and four years if part-time, but they can be reappointed after completion of their term.
In criminal matters, magistrate judges may oversee certain cases, issue search warrants and arrest warrants, conduct initial hearings, set bail, decide certain motions (such as a motion to suppress evidence), and other similar actions. In civil cases, magistrates often handle a variety of issues such as pre-trial motions and discovery.
Federal trial courts have also been established for a few subject-specific areas.
Each federal district also has:
a bankruptcy court for those proceedings.
Additionally, some courts have nationwide jurisdiction for issues such as
tax (United States Tax Court), claims against the federal government
(United States Court of Federal Claims), and
international trade (United States Court of International Trade).
Once the federal district court has decided a case, the case can be appealed to a United States court of appeal.
There are twelve federal circuits that divide the country into different regions.
The Fifth Circuit, for example, includes the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Cases from the district courts of those states are appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. Additionally, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a nationwide jurisdiction over very specific issues such as patents.
Each circuit court has multiple judges, ranging from six on the First Circuit to twenty-nine on the Ninth Circuit.
Circuit court judges are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Any case may be appealed to the circuit court once the district court has finalized a decision (some issues can be appealed before a final decision by making an “interlocutory appeal”).
Appeals to circuit courts are first heard by a panel, consisting of three circuit court judges.
Parties file “briefs” to the court, arguing why the trial court’s decision should be “affirmed” or “reversed.”
After the briefs are filed, the court will schedule “oral argument” in which the lawyers come before the court to make their arguments and answer the judges’ questions.
Though it is rare, the entire circuit court may consider certain appeals in a process called an “en banc hearing.” * (The Ninth Circuit has a different process for en banc than the rest of the circuits.) En banc opinions tend to carry more weight and are usually decided only after a panel has first heard the case.
Once a panel has ruled on an issue and “published” the opinion, no future panel can overrule the previous decision. The panel can, however, suggest that the circuit take up the case en banc to reconsider the first panel’s decision.
Beyond the Federal Circuit, a few courts have been established to deal with appeals on specific subjects such as veterans claims (United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims) and military matters (United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces).
There are over 670 District Court Judges and twelve federal circuits nationwide.