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The United States federal courts comprises the Judiciary Branch of government organized under the Constitution and laws of the federal government of the United States. See also United States federal judge.


The courts are one of the three coequal branches of the federal government, and include:

While federal courts are generally created by the United States Congress under the constitutional power described in Article III, many of the specialized courts are created under the authority granted in Article I. Much greater power is vested in Article III court because these courts are much more independent of Congress and the President. If Article I courts were able to exercise that level of power, the balance of power between the branches of government would be threatened.

Article III requires the establishment of a Supreme Court and permits the Congress to create other federal courts, and place limitations on their jurisdiction. In theory, Congress could eliminate the entire federal judiciary except for a single Supreme Court Justice (who would be the Chief Justice by default), although the 1st Congress immediately established a system of lower federal courts through the Judiciary Act of 1789.

Levels of U.S. federal courts

The United States district courts are the general federal trial courts, although in many cases Congress has passed statutes which divert original jurisdiction to the above-mentioned specialized courts or to administrative law judges (ALJs). In such cases, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear appeals from such lower bodies.

The United States courts of appeals are the federal intermediate appellate courts. They operate under a system of mandatory review which means they must hear all appeals from the lower courts.

The Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker is the supreme court (court of last resort). It generally is an appellate court that operates under discretionary review, meaning that the Court, through granting of writs of certiorari, can choose which cases to hear. There is generally no mandatory right of appeal to the Supreme Court. In a few unusual situations (like lawsuits between state governments or some cases between the federal government and a state) it sits as a court of original jurisdiction. Such matters are generally referred to a designated individual (usually a sitting or retired judge or well-respected attorney) to sit as a special master and report to the Court with recommendations.

Related organizations

The Judicial Conference of the United States is the policymaking body of the U.S. federal courts. The Conference is responsible for creating and revising federal procedural rules pursuant to the Rules Enabling Act.

The United States Marshals Service is responsible for providing protection for the federal judiciary and transporting federal prisoners.

The Supreme Court Police provide security for the Supreme Court buildingmarker.

Limitations on U.S. federal courts

The Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as placing some additional restrictions on the federal courts. For example, the doctrines of mootness, ripeness, and standing prohibit district courts from issuing advisory opinions. Other doctrines, such as the abstention doctrine and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine limit the power of lower federal courts to disturb rulings made by state courts. The Erie doctrine requires federal courts to apply substantive state law to claims arising from state law (which may be heard in federal courts under supplemental or diversity jurisdiction). In difficult cases, the federal courts must either guess as to how a state court would decide the issue or "certify" the issue to a state court if the state has provided for such a procedure.

Notably, the only federal court that can issue proclamations of federal law that bind state courts is the Supreme Court itself. Decisions of the lower federal courts on issues of federal law are persuasive but not binding authority in the states in which those federal courts sit.

Study of U.S. federal courts

Most U.S. law schools offer an elective course that focuses specifically on the powers and limitations of U.S. federal courts, with coverage of topics such as justiciability, abstention doctrines, the abrogation doctrine, and habeas corpus.

See also


  1. People v. Leonard, 40 Cal. 4th 1370, 1416 (2007) (Ninth Circuit decisions on federal law do not bind Supreme Court of California).

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