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Thursday, April 18, 2024

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Hon. Michael McShane, Chief Judge

Melissa Aubin, Clerk of Court

Understanding Federal Courts - The Basics

The Judicial Branch

The United States Constitution structures the federal government into three separate branches with distinct responsibilities. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government operate within a constitutional system known as "checks and balances."  While each co-equal branch of government is formally separate from the other two, the Constitution often requires one branch to take an action that impacts another branch. For example, the Constitution gives the President the power to appoint judges with the "advice and consent" of the Senate.  Congress has the power to create federal courts other than the Supreme Court, to determine how many judges there should be and in which courts they should sit, and to appropriate funds for the federal courts to operate.  The courts, meanwhile, have the power to interpret laws passed by Congress, to determine whether the federal and state laws comport with the Constitution, and to decide whether Congress or the Executive branch has the legal authority to take certain actions.  The Constitutional powers and jurisdiction of the judicial branch are set forth in Article III of the Constitution. This includes the appointment of federal judges and the power to decide cases and controversies arising under the Constitution.

Federal District Courts

District courts are the trial courts in the federal system.  Within limits set by Congress and the U.S. Constitution, district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including civil and criminal matters.  District Courts also have jurisdiction over cases involving "diversity of citizenship," which are disputes between parties who are not from the same state or country, and where the claim meets a set dollar threshold for damages.

Additionally, there are two special trial courts that have nationwide jurisdiction over certain types of cases: (1) The Court of International Trade addresses cases involving international trade and customs issues; and (2) The United States Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, unlawful "takings" of private property by the federal government, and a variety of other claims against the United States.

The United States District Court for the District of Oregon is one of 94 federal judicial districts.  There is at least one judicial district in each state, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.  The District of Oregon was created by Congress in 1859 and currently has Divisions in Portland, Eugene, Medford, and Pendleton.  The United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Oregon has locations in Portland and Eugene.

Federal Courts of Appeal

A party who does not prevail in a district court may be able to appeal in one of the 13 federal courts of appeal.  The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States Court of Appeals.  Additionally, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals from the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

Appeals from the District of Oregon are heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Unlike a district court, a federal court of appeals does not hear new evidence, hear witness testimony, or retry cases.  Instead, appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.  Cases are generally decided by a panel of three judges.  In some instances, the appeal may be heard or re-decided by a panel of 10 circuit court judges plus the Chief Circuit Court Judge (called a hearing or rehearing en banc).  A party who does not prevail in the Court of Appeals may appeal to the United States Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court's jurisdiction is largely discretionary, however, and it usually only hears 100 to 150 appeals out of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year.  In consequence, the decisions made by the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the Federal Circuit Court are the final decisions in thousands of cases.

The Supreme Court

Article III of the U.S. Constitution creates the Supreme Court and vests the Supreme Court with "original jurisdiction" over cases in which a state is party, or in cases involving ambassadors, public ministers, and consuls. In these rare types of cases, the Supreme Court is the trial court. Article III also grants the Supreme Court jurisdiction to hear appeals in most other federal cases, subject to any exceptions determined by Congress. Parties seeking an appeal at the highest Court in the land must petition the Court for a writ of certiorari, which the Justices will consider when deciding whether to hear the case. Information about the work of the Supreme Court and its history is available at www.supremecourt.gov.

Additional Resources

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts publishes news items about the federal judiciary and offers additional resources for learning about the structure of the federal court system at www.uscourts.gov.

The Federal Judicial Center hosts a site documenting the history of the U.S. Courts at www.fjc.gov/history.

Historical societies are also valuable resources for information about the courts: