Legal Issues In the News

A Primer On Lower Federal Courts

Sean Anderson from the University of Illinois College of Law

Sean Anderson from the University of Illinois College of Law University of Illinois College of Law

The United States Supreme Court gets most of the press, but lower federal courts handle hundreds of thousands of cases every year and have an enormous effect on our lives. So do state courts, but let’s save that topic for another day. Today, a primer on the lower federal courts.

The Constitution expressly requires a Supreme Court, but it leaves the existence and organization of other federal courts up to Congress. Over time, Congress has created federal courts under both Article III of the Constitution, which covers the judiciary, and Article I, which covers Congress itself. In the interest of time, I’ll only talk about Article III courts today; in most respects and for most people, they tend to be more important.

Immediately below the Supreme Court are thirteen courts called U.S. Courts of Appeals. Twelve of those courts are organized geographically; that is, they have jurisdiction over appeals coming from a specific area. One is for the District of Columbia, and the others are numbered one through eleven and cover specific groups of states. For example, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sits in Chicago and hears appeals from federal courts in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. The thirteenth, non-geographic court is the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears appeals from all over the country in specialized areas such as patent law and government contracts.

No trials happen in the courts of appeals; they decide legal issues based on cases that have already been addressed in lower courts. Because the Supreme Court accepts only about one percent of the cases it’s asked to take, the decisions of the courts of appeals are usually the final word in any given case. Those decisions also set precedent for future cases in the same jurisdiction.

Together, the thirteen courts of appeals have 179 authorized judge positions, plus room for so-called “senior” judges who have retired but may still hear cases. At any given time, some of the 179 judge positions are vacant because the process of presidential appointment and Senate approval doesn’t keep up with the vacancies created by deaths and retirements.

Below the courts of appeals are ninety-four district courts, organized geographically. Some states, like Connecticut and Montana, have one district court that covers the entire state. Other states have multiple districts. Illinois, for example, has three: Northern, Central, and Southern. There are also district courts in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam. All told, there are about 670 authorized district judge positions. But that number dramatically understates the size of the enterprise; there are another 500-plus magistrate judges who assist the district court judges in handling a caseload of around 350,000 cases a year.

District courts are trial courts, meaning that’s where cases begin. In a federal district court, you can sue someone for violating federal law; you can also sue there under state law, but only if the defendant is a citizen of a different state and the case involves more than $75,000. And federal district court is where you could, heaven forbid, be charged with violating a federal criminal law.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the topic, and I’m already running out of time for this broadcast. If you’re interested in learning more about our federal courts, a good place to begin is at