Legal Definition of Federal Court
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction in the United States, meaning they can only hear cases authorized by the United States Constitution or federal statutes. The federal court system deals with matters of federal law, as opposed to state courts which handle cases involving state law. It is a hierarchy of courts established by the federal government and operating independently from state judicial systems. The decisions of federal courts are binding on all other courts in the country concerning matters of federal law.
The federal court system is divided into three main levels:
- District Courts: These are the trial courts where cases are first filed and tried. The United States is divided into judicial districts, each having its own District Court. District Courts handle a wide range of civil and criminal cases, including bankruptcy cases, civil rights disputes, and federal criminal prosecutions.
- Circuit Courts of Appeals: Also known as Appellate Courts, these are the middle level of the federal court system. They hear appeals from District Courts within their circuit. The United States is divided into 12 regional circuits, each with its own Court of Appeals. These courts review the decisions of the District Courts and determine whether the law was applied correctly.
- Supreme Court of the United States: The highest court in the federal system, and indeed the country, the Supreme Court reviews decisions of the Circuit Courts and, in some cases, decisions of state supreme courts. The Supreme Court has the final say on matters of federal law and the Constitution.
Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases that involve the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, and treaties. They also hear cases involving disputes between states, cases involving ambassadors and public ministers, admiralty and maritime law cases, and cases where the United States is a party. Additionally, federal courts can hear cases that involve citizens of different states or foreign governments and citizens, known as diversity jurisdiction, provided the amount in dispute exceeds a certain threshold.
Unlike state court judges, who are often elected or appointed for fixed terms, federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They serve for life, unless they resign, retire, or are removed after impeachment. This lifelong tenure is intended to insulate federal judges from political pressures and to ensure judicial independence.
The decisions made in federal courts can have wide-ranging impacts, often setting precedents that shape the interpretation of the law across the country. Federal courts play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of power among the branches of government and between the federal government and the states, as well as in protecting the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.
In summary, the federal court system in the United States is a hierarchy of courts that deal with legal matters under federal jurisdiction. It consists of District Courts, Circuit Courts of Appeals, and the Supreme Court, each playing a distinct role in the interpretation and application of federal law and the Constitution.