The National Judiciary for AP U.S. Government

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

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The National Judiciary Review Questions for AP U.S. Government

The Federal Court System


Jurisdiction is the authority of the courts to hear certain cases. Under the Constitution, federal courts have jurisdiction in cases involving federal law, treaties, and the interpretation of the Constitution.

  • original jurisdiction—Lower courts have the authority to hear cases for the first time; in the federal system district courts and the Supreme Court (in a limited number of cases) have original jurisdiction where trials are conducted, evidence is presented, and juries determine the outcome of the case.
  • appellate jurisdiction—courts that hear reviews or appeals of decisions from the lower courts; Courts of Appeals and the Supreme Court have appellate jurisdiction.
  • concurrent jurisdiction—allows certain types of cases to be tried in either the federal or state courts.

Structure of the Judicial System

The federal judicial system consists of constitutional courts and legislative courts. Constitutional courts are the federal courts created by Congress under Article III of the Constitution and the Supreme Court. Also included are the district courts, Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Congress has created special or legislative courts (Territorial Courts, U.S. Tax Court, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces) to hear cases arising from the powers given to Congress under Article I. These legislative courts have a narrower range of authority than the constitutional courts.

District Courts

Congress, under the Judiciary Act of 1789, created the district courts to serve as trial courts at the federal level. Every state has at least one district court; larger states may have several, with Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico each having one court. There are currently 94 districts. The district courts have original jurisdiction; they do not hear appeals. District courts decide civil and criminal cases arising under the Constitution and federal laws or treaties. More than 80% of all federal cases are heard in the district courts.

Courts of Appeals

Congress created the Courts of Appeals in 1891 to help lessen the work load of the Supreme Court. The Courts of Appeals decide appeals from United States district courts and review decisions of federal administrative agencies. There are 13 United States Courts of Appeals. The states are divided into circuits, or geographic judicial districts. There is also a circuit for Washington, D.C., and a Federal Circuit, which hears cases involving federal agencies. The Courts of Appeals have appellate jurisdiction only; they may only review cases already decided by a lower court. A panel of judges decides cases in the Courts of Appeals.

Supreme Court

The only court actually created directly by the Constitution is the Supreme Court. It is the highest court in the federal judicial system. It is the final authority in dealing with all questions arising from the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties. The Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction. Most of the cases heard in the Supreme Court are on appeal from the district and appellate courts of the federal judicial system; however, cases may come to the Supreme Court from state Supreme Courts, if a federal law or the constitution is involved. The United States Supreme Court may also hear cases of original jurisdiction if the cases involve representatives of a foreign government, or certain types of cases where a state is a party.

The decisions of the Supreme Court may have a strong impact on social, economic, and political forces in our society. Congress establishes the size of the Supreme Court, having the power to change the number of justices. The current size of the Supreme Court was set in 1869. Today, the Supreme Court consists of nine judges—eight associate justices and one chief justice. They are all nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

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