Report: The Federal Court System
As well as research on the history and evolution of the U.S. Federal Court system, and the various responsibilities of the courts and their jurisdictions and functions, this report also researches the basic organizational principles of the courts and the responsibilities of the various associated agencies affiliated with those courts.
History and Evolution of the Courts.
As described in “History of the Federal Judiciary” (n.d.), the American courts system originated in 1789, following what was just an outline of a courts system in Article III of the U.S Constitution as drafted in 1787. Then in September 1789, the first Congress approved the Judiciary Act established a system of local federal courts, but with significant roles reserved for a system of state courts. That 1789 Act made provision for three federal court types, as follows:
The Supreme Court: Having six justices – a chief justice and five associates – to meet twice annually in the U.S. capital to hear appeals from other courts; either federal courts or from supreme courts in a U.S. state.
District Courts: In each state, a single judge ruled over a district court.
Circuit Courts: Served in each instance by the local district court judge and two justices from the Supreme Court.
In order to preserve the legal traditions of individual states, Congress for the most part made state boundaries coincident with judicial district boundaries, and adopted the rules of that state for the procedures used in district and circuit courts and for federal jury selection. As a further and important way of protecting the legal cultures of the regions, Congress implemented a system in which the Supreme Court justices had to serve in the circuit courts to increase their knowledge of the locally-specific procedures and to experience interaction with people at the entry point of the federal courts system. In addition, district judges were required to live in their own district, further promoting the concept of a locally-orientated justice system. The Judiciary Act also stipulated that defendants appeared in court in their own district, and that trials in which the death penalty was possible had to be held in the same county as the scene of the crime.
Following battles between the political parties, in 1801 Congress approved another Judiciary Act that increased federal jurisdiction while reducing that of the state courts, plus established new circuit courts with their own judges, at the same time discontinuing the requirement for Supreme Court justices to serve in the circuit courts. Then, under President Thomas Jefferson, the Judiciary Act of 1801 was repealed by Congress in 1802, re-establishing the practice of Supreme Court justices serving in circuit courts. The court system then remained substantially unchanged until the Civil War ended.
Then, in 1891, after a steady buildup of caseloads, causing a backlog, and the pressure on the Supreme Court justices of travelling around the circuit courts, a new type of federal court was introduced – the court of appeal. Nine were established – one in each circuit, coupled with the addition of one extra circuit judge in each instance. Appeals courts were presided over by a panel of three judges (a combination of circuit and district judges or a Supreme Court justice). Although the establishment of these appeal courts helped reduce the caseload of the Supreme Court, there were still too many cases to deal with, so in 1911 Congress abolished the circuit courts and therefore the circuit duties for justices, other than a requirement to sit in on appeal courts cases. District courts then became the only federal trial courts of general jurisdiction.
In 1925 Congress reduced the number of case types that the Supreme Court could review, then – in 1988 – the Supreme Court lost almost all its jurisdiction over appeals. Refinements to the system such as adding further circuits and additional judges have meant that by 2006 there were a total of 678 district judges. Other changes in recent times included the provision of the now named Judicial Conference of the United States – a new administrative facility that comprises a judges panel that is effectively the administrative arm of the courts system and advises Congress on legislative matters. Also, the system of magistrate judges was introduced in 1968 to oversee pretrial procedures and to be responsible for trials involving specific misdemeanors. In 1978, the separate role of bankruptcy judge was established by Congress. These judges are part of the district courts and deal with practically all bankruptcy cases.
Court Responsibilities, Jurisdictions and Functions..
Following the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Supreme Court functioned to hear appeals from other federal courts, and/or from the supreme courts in each state. It also had limited jurisdiction determined within the Constitution. Within, each state, the district courts exclusively possessed the jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime law cases, plus could hear cases involving lesser federal crimes. The circuit courts would exclusively hear federal cases of a more important nature. Although they could deal with cases of appeal from district courts, trials were their primary function. Along with the state courts, they could also hear cases concerning disputes exceeding a certain financial threshold, and litigation involving the national government or between people residing in different U.S. states.
The Judiciary Act of 1801 made some detail changes regarding function and jurisdiction of the courts within the system, but the Act was repealed in 1802, and the system reverted back to the 1789 situation. In 1842, Congess extended jurisdiction of the district courts, allowing them to hear all federal crime cases, other than those involving crimes that could be subject to capital punishment. The next major changes came in 1863, but changed little in terms of jurisdiction and functionality of the courts, other than increasing the number of circuit judges to aid the over-burdened Supreme Court justices. Then in 1875, the circuit courts were granted jurisdiction to hear any cases involving the Constitution and/or federal legislation. That same Act permitted those involved in a state court case with federal aspects or where the parties were not based in the same state to have it transferred to a federal court.
Then, in 1891, the new Appeals courts took away the circuit courts’ jurisdiction over appeals, and appeals associated with constitutional issues and those involving capital offences went straight to the Supreme Court. That court could also – if it so wished – decide to settle a case from other (lower) courts. In 1911, Congress having realized that Supreme Court justices were having difficulty attending the circuit courts, those courts were abolished, giving district courts exclusive jurisdiction over trials within the federal system.
In 1925, Congress restricted the categories of cases that could be reviewed in the Supreme Court, allowing that court to concentrate on cases involving constitutional issues and settling conflicts arising from circuit appeal courts decisions. Much later – in 1988 – almost all the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction was withdrawn by Congress.
Meanwhile, in 1978, Congress had – as mentioned earlier – created bankruptcy judges, who had virtually exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases in the district courts.
Summarizing, the federal courts system continues as a three-tier system, much as it was as far back as 1891. It still provides a combination of national and local courts, providing not just a federal law body but also a system accessible to citizens everywhere in the United States.
Court-Affiliated Agencies. The U.S. federal courts system cannot function in isolation, but requires the support of other associated or affiliated entities. One such is the United States Sentencing Commission. An article “Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission” (n.d.) describes it as an agency that is independent of the judicial branch of government, though a part of it. Its three principal purposes are to determine federal court sentencing policies, to help Congress in developing crime policies, and to compile, analyze and disseminate crime-related information, acting as a generally available source of such data. The Commission itself has several sub-units dedicated to specific aspects of its responsibilities and activities.
Another article describes the “Administrative Office of the United States Courts” (n.d.). this unique body was established in 1939 to support and assist the judiciary. It not only provides a broad range of support services to the courts and others, but also provides support and staff to the Judicial Conference of the U.S. and its associated committees. It provides the needed professional services to over 32,000 employees of the judiciary system based in over 800 locations across the nation.
A third organization associated with the federal courts system is the Federal Judicial Center. An article with that same title (n.d.) describes its functions, which are to provide research and training facilities in numerous aspects of the judicial system including administration of the courts, management of cases, finance, and human resources, and relevant technology. It also arranges seminars, organizes ongoing education for personnel including judges, and looks at ways to improve court management and administration.
The research has indicated that the first federal courts system established under the Judiciary Act of 1789 has retained those same principles and the basic structure implicit in the Act. Over the years changes have been made, principally to reflect the increased workload and diversity of case types, and therefore the necessity for refinements to and expansion of the system. Today’s federal court system still provides a structured arrangement of national and local courts; not only a federal law body but also a system accessible locally to citizens throughout the U.S.. The research has also found that the courts system is supported and assisted by other agencies/organizations, each with specific roles to ensure the courts system continues to run smoothly and keeps pace with legislation, technology and the demands and expectations of today’s society.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts. (n.d.). United States Courts. Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/UnderstandingtheFederalCourts/
Federal Judicial Center. (n.d.). United States Courts. Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/UnderstandingtheFederalCourts/~FederalJudicialCenter.aspx
History of the Federal Judiciary. (n.d.). Federal Judicial Center. Retrieved from http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/talking_ej_tp.html
Overview of the United States Sentencing Commission. (n.d.). United States Sentencing Commission. Retrieved from http://www.ussc.gov/About_the_Commission/index.cfm