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The Federal Court System

Battles over judicial nominations are nothing new — in recent years NOW has covered those surrounding the nominations of William Pryor and Janice Rogers Brown. But now some Senate Republicans are threatening to do away with a tool used in the past by both parties to block unpopular candidates, the filibuster. The immediate cause, the renomination of Judge Brown and of Justice Priscilla Owen to the federal bench. But how much influence will nominees have on that bench, and who is responsible for nomination and approval? Below you'll find a brief description of the U.S. federal court system, and the way judges are made.


Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. The country has been divided by Congress into ninety-four federal judicial districts, partially defined by state boundaries. In each district there are a U.S. district court (the federal trial courts) and a U.S. bankruptcy court.

The ninety-four districts are in turn administered by thirteen regional judicial circuits. Each circuit has a court of appeals. Upon petition by the loser, the court of appeals reviews cases heard in the district court to determine if the district judge applied the law correctly. The smallest court is the First Circuit with six judgeships, and the largest court is the Ninth Circuit, with 28 judgeships. In 2002, the federal courts gathered 1,547,669 bankruptcy cases; 274,8414 civil filings and 88,354 criminal cases. (View a map of the federal court circuits.)

The final court of appeals is the Supreme Court of the United States. If a case is lost in the circuit court of appeals (or, sometimes, in a state supreme court) it can be brought to the Supreme Court for review. However, the U.S. Supreme Court hears only a very small percentage of cases submitted for review. (Learn more about the workings of the Supreme Court.)

There are also two special trial courts which have nationwide jurisdiction. The U.S. Court of International Trade hears cases involving international trade and customs issues. Judges of this court have life tenure. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims hears mostly claims for money damages in excess of $10,000 against the United States. There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. It hears appeals from certain courts and agencies, such as the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


Federal court jurisdiction is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear cases in which the United States is a party;

  • cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction);
  • cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000
  • bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases.
  • federal courts may also hear cases concerning state laws if the issue is whether the state law violates the federal Constitution.


Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate, as stated in the Constitution. The names of potential nominees often are recommended by senators or sometimes members of the House who are of the President's political party. The Senate Judiciary Committee typically conducts confirmation hearings for each nominee. Article III of the Constitution states that these judicial officers are appointed for a life term. The federal Judiciary, the Judicial Conference of the United States, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts play no role in the nomination and confirmation process.

Court of appeals and district court judgeships are created by legislation that must be enacted by Congress. New judgeships were last created in December 1990.

The Constitution sets forth no specific requirements. However, members of Congress, who typically recommend potential nominees, and the Department of Justice, which reviews nominees' qualifications, have developed their own informal criteria.


The review process of federal judicial appointments has become increasingly contentious — leading some to contend that the business of the courts is being hampered by partisan politics. The American Bar Association recently published a critical report on Judicial Vacancies. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist began his 2002 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary with a warning about the ongoing problem of judicial vacancies and the need for additional judgeships.

Each party blames the other for the apparent slowdown in the approval process. A comparison of judicial nominations for the first two years of the past five presidents' terms does show lessening rate of approvals. Congress confirmed 93% of President Carter's nominations, 99% of President Reagan's; 95% of George Bush, Sr.'s; 90% of Clinton's and 76% of the current administration's. It should be noted that the Clinton administration withdrew a number of nominations when it appeared they would incur a bitter nomination battle. You can find out more from the Department of Justice's Statistics on Judicial Nominations. To further delve into the nominations process, make a visit to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary's site and archive.

Sources: U.S. Courts; U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary; Federal Judicial Center; The Supreme Court of the United States; American Bar Association Judicial Vacancies; Department of Justice, Office of Legal Policies; Year-end Report on the Federal Judiciary

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