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About the U.S. Federal Court System

"Guardians of the Constitution"


A male judge hitting a gavel on the bench
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Often called the "guardians of the Constitution," the federal court system exists to fairly and impartially interpret and apply the law, resolve disputes and, perhaps most importantly, to protect the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. The courts do not "make" the laws. The Constitution delegates making, amending and repealing federal laws to the U.S. Congress.

Federal Judges
Under the Constitution, judges of all federal courts are appointed for life by the president of the United States, with the approval of the Senate. Federal judges can be removed from office only through impeachment and conviction by Congress. The Constitution also provides that the pay of federal judges "shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office." Through these stipulations, the Founding Fathers hoped to promote the independence of the judicial branch from the executive and legislative branches.

Composition of the Federal Judiciary
The very first bill considered by the U.S. Senate -- the Judiciary Act of 1789 -- divided the country into 12 judicial districts or "circuits." The court system is further divided into 94 eastern, central and southern "districts" geographically across the country. Within each district, one court of appeals, regional district courts and bankruptcy courts are established.

The Supreme Court
Created in Article III of the Constitution, the Chief Justice and eight associate justices of the Supreme Court hear and decide cases involving important questions about the interpretation and fair application of the Constitution and federal law. Cases typically come to the Supreme Court as appeals to decisions of lower federal and state courts.

The Courts of Appeals
Each of the 12 regional circuits has one U.S. court of Appeals that hears appeals to decisions of the district courts located within its circuit and appeals to decisions of federal regulatory agencies. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction and hears specialized cases like patent and international trade cases.

The District Courts
Considered the trial courts of the federal judicial system, the 94 district courts, located within the 12 regional circuits, hear practically all cases involving federal civil and criminal laws. Decisions of the district courts are typically appealed to the district's court of appeals.

The Bankruptcy Courts
The federal courts have jurisdiction over all bankruptcy cases. Bankruptcy cannot be filed in state courts. The primary purposes of the law of bankruptcy are: (1) to give an honest debtor a "fresh start" in life by relieving the debtor of most debts, and (2) to repay creditors in an orderly manner to the extent that the debtor has property available for payment.

Special Courts
Two special courts have nationwide jurisdiction over special types of cases:

U.S. Court of International Trade - hears cases involving U.S. trade with foreign countries and customs issues

U.S. Court of Federal Claims - considers claims for monetary damages made against the U.S. government, federal contract disputes and disputed "takings" or claiming of land by the federal government

Other special courts include:

Court of Appeals for Veterans' Claims
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces

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