Iycee Charles de Gaulle Summary A description of the structure of the federal judiciary Essay

A description of the structure of the federal judiciary Essay

A description of the structure of the federal judiciary

The U.S. judiciary consisting of the federal and state courts interprets and applies the laws made by the legislature. The exclusive jurisdiction of Federal courts is limited to cases involving federal law, disputes between states and disputes concerning foreign governments. Federal courts and state courts share jurisdiction in cases involving parties who live in different states. In the remaining cases the state courts enjoy exclusive jurisdiction.

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The U.S. Supreme Court is established by the U.S Constitution and the lower federal courts by Congress. The federal courts levels are first, the 94 U. S District Courts, which form the first level trial courts and comprise of district judges, bankruptcy judges and magistrate judges who assist the trial judge. Second, the U. S Circuit Courts of Appeals, consisting of 12 regional intermediate appellate courts spread all over the U.S. Any party, other than the government in a criminal case, can appeal to the circuit court of appeal. Further, appeals against decisions made by federal administrative agencies are heard by these regional circuit courts. The apex of the federal court system is the U. S Supreme Court. Judicial independence is ensured due to administration by the judicial branch of the federal government[1].

Under which circumstances may an action be brought into federal, rather than state, court?

An action can be preferred in a federal court in first, cases involving interpretation of the U.S Constitution, federal laws and treaties. Second, cases concerning diplomats and foreign officials. Third, cases of disagreement between states. Fourth, where the admiralty is involved and maritime cases. Fifth, controversies involving the United States and other countries and finally, disputes between citizens of different states.

The federal law specifies that certain disagreements like patent and copyright disputes can be heard only by the federal courts. Since, exclusive jurisdiction is absent; the parties are permitted to approach the state courts instead of the federal court. In the context of diversity jurisdiction cases where pecuniary damages are being sought, the federal courts will not take up cases where the amount claimed is less than $75,000 and such cases have to be perforce filed with the state courts[2].

Under what conditions do federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction? Provide three examples of cases that support your answer.

The federal government’s jurisdiction extends all over the U. S. Further, every state can pass its own laws. Courts have either general or special jurisdiction. The former is a trial court empowered to try all cases not specifically required to be heard in courts of special jurisdiction, whereas the latter can only take up certain kinds of cases. These courts of general jurisdiction are district courts and superior courts. At the federal level, the district courts have general jurisdiction. Although a plaintiff can file suit in federal court, these courts usually have concurrent jurisdiction. The United States Constitution permits suits heard by federal courts to be heard by the state courts[3]. In Johnson v. Avery[4], a state prisoner filed a motion in federal court against his confinement in maximum security as punishment for assisting other inmates. The district court ordered his release from maximum security but the Sixth Circuit Court reversed this decision, however the Supreme Court set aside the circuit court decision, stating that a state may not prohibit inmates from assisting each other in legal matters.

In re Bonner[5], a federal inmate claimed to have been illegally sentenced to a state facility. The defendants claimed that the petitioner was disputing the Bureau of Prisons decision to confine him to a particular facility within its jurisdiction. Further, the Supreme Court did not consider whether the matter was properly raised in a habeas petition. In Montez v. McKinna[6], the Court allowed a state prisoner to contest his transfer from a Wyoming state prison to a Texas and finally Colorado private prison, because these transfers violated his constitutional rights guaranteed by the Commerce and Supremacy Clauses and the Fifth and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendments.

In respect of crimes committed in a place over which the United States and a State have concurrent criminal jurisdiction, both of them can try the accused without violating the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Constitutional Amendment. In Grafton v. United States[7] it was held that the acts constituting a crime cannot be used as the basis of a subsequent trial in the same or in another court, civil or military, of the same government, after that person has been acquitted or convicted “by a court of competent jurisdiction of the Federal Government. However, if the defendant’s act constitutes a crime under both State and Federal law, then the defendant can be punished under each of them.[8]”

Describe the function of appellate courts in both the federal and state systems.

In the U.S. there are a number of multiple autonomous courts. In addition to the federal court system each state has its own court system. The final arbiter in this dual court structure is the U.S. Supreme Court, while the highest court of each state is the ultimate authority in matters of state law. In respect of federal constitutional or statutory matters the federal courts are authorized to decide whether the state law violates federal law.

The U.S. Courts of Appeals as the intermediate-level federal court constitutes the workhorse of the federal court system. If a party is of the opinion that the district court has committed an error of law then an appeal is made before the U.S. courts of appeals. The U.S. Courts of Appeals comprises of 11 numbered circuits and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which also takes up federal government cases. Each circuit attends to appeals from the district courts within its territory. The U.S. Courts of Appeals decides either on the basis of written briefs submitted by the litigants or on oral arguments. Decisions are made on the basis of a written opinion of one of the judges and have to be signed by at least two judges belonging to the panel of judges. A dissenting judge appends the reason for the dissent, which can be very important in subsequent court decisions. After this three-judge panel decision the litigants can seek a “reconsideration of the decision by the same three-judge panel;” a rehearing of the panel’s decision by all the circuit judges or they can approach the “U.S. Supreme Court by filing a motion for a writ of certiorari.”  However, these relief measures being discretionary are rarely granted[9].

Compare and contrast the structure of the federal judiciary with the judicial structure of Texas.

Article III of the United States Constitution creates the judicial branch as one of the three separate and distinct branches of the federal government. In general, federal courts deal with cases involving the United States government, Constitution or federal laws and disagreements between individual states or between the U.S and foreign governments and bankruptcy matters. Most legal disputes are dealt with by the state courts and they have jurisdiction over “divorce, child custody and juvenile matters, probate, inheritance and real estate issues, most criminal cases, contract disputes, traffic violations and personal injury cases[10].”

Article 5, section 1 of the Texas Constitution provides judicial power of the State of Texas and states that: “The judicial power of this State shall be vested in one Supreme Court, in one Court of Criminal Appeals, in Courts of Appeals, in District Courts, in County Courts, in Commissioners Courts, in Courts of Justices of the Peace, and in such other courts as may be provided by law. The Legislature may establish such other courts as it may deem necessary and prescribe the jurisdiction and organization thereof, and may conform the jurisdiction of the district and other inferior courts thereto. (As amended November 4, 1980, effective September 1, 1981.)” Further, a very important component of the Texas justice system is the Attorney General, who is directly elected by a statewide vote. The Attorney General is the legal counsel of all state government boards and agencies and provides legal opinion to the Governor and state officials and is required to:  “defend the laws and the Constitution of the state of Texas, represent the state in litigation and approve public bond issues.” The highest court in the federal judiciary is the Supreme Court. Beneath it are the two levels of federal courts, namely the trial courts and the appellate courts[11].

Would state court or federal court be most advantageous for the prosecution in this case? Why?

The federal conspiracy and forfeiture laws gave the federal judges guidelines for dealing with drug traffickers. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, great concern was occasioned, in respect of the justice system, due to different federal judges giving markedly different sentences for similar crimes. Accordingly, in 1984 Congress created a commission to create a uniform system of sentencing to be applied in the same way by federal judges all over the U.S.

The House Judiciary Committee created the mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was finally passed in both the houses. A federal court is preferable to a state court, because federal courts have the same laws throughout the U.S and apply broad federal conspiracy and forfeiture law, unlike the state courts, which do not apply the former and whose laws vary from state to state[12].


Grafton v. United States 206 U. S. 333 (1907).


In re Bonner 151 U.S. 242 (1894).

Jurisdiction, n.d, retrieved December 21, 2006 from http://www.answers.com/topic/jurisdiction.

Johnson v. Avery 393 U.S. 483 (1969).

Lieberman, Jethro K. “Courts in the United States.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.

Montez v. McKinna 208 F.3d 862, 864 (10th Cir. 2000).

Sterling, Eric E. Drug Laws and Snitching: A Primer. Retrieved on December 21, 2006 from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/snitch/primer/

The Texas Judicial System. March 2005. retrieved on December 21, 2006 from http://www.courts.state.tx.us/JudSysPam0604.pdf

The Constitution and the Federal Judiciary. Retrieved on December 21, 2006 from http://www.uscourts.gov/understand03/content_1_0.html

The US Legal System, n.d., retrieved December 21, 2006 from http://www.fjc.gov/public/pdf.nsf/lookup/ijr00003.pdf/$file/ijr00003.pdf.

Toni M. Fine, n.d. How The U.S. Court System Functions, retrieved December 21, 2006 from http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm.

[1] The US Legal System, n.d., retrieved December 21, 2006 from http://www.fjc.gov/public/pdf.nsf/lookup/ijr00003.pdf/$file/ijr00003.pdf
[2] Lieberman, Jethro K. “Courts in the United States.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.

[3] Jurisdiction, n.d, retrieved December 21, 2006 from http://www.answers.com/topic/jurisdiction.
[4] 393 U.S. 483 (1969)
[5] 151 U.S. 242 (1894)
[6] 208 F.3d 862, 864 (10th Cir. 2000)
[7] 206 U. S. 333 (1907)
[8] Retrieved December 21, 2006 from http://www.civil-liberties.com/pages/report.html
[9] Toni M. Fine, n.d. How The U.S. Court System Functions, retrieved December 21, 2006 from http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itdhr/0999/ijde/fine.htm
[10] The Constitution and the Federal Judiciary.
[11] The Texas Judicial System. 2005.
[12] Sterling. Drug Laws and Snitching: A Primer.