Hierarchy of courts
The federal court system includes the U.S. Supreme Court, the Courts of Appeals, the District Courts, and the Special Courts. The entire system of federal courts is headed by the US Supreme Court, which at the same time occupies an extremely important position in the entire structure of the highest state institutions, along with the US Congress and the President.
The US Supreme Court, the only judicial institution mentioned in the US Constitution, is made up of nine judges, one of whom the US President appoints as Chief Justice. The members of the Supreme Court, including the chairman, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The quorum required to make a decision is six members of the court.
The Supreme Court hears at first instance cases in disputes between two or more states, in claims in which one of the parties is the ambassadors of foreign states, and some others (in practice, such cases are few).
Its main function is to consider complaints against decisions of lower federal and state courts if they touch on a “federal issue”, as well as requests to set aside the decision of any court, which recognizes the law of any state or act of the US Congress as contrary to the US Constitution.
The Supreme Court also has the right, if requested by the Court of Appeal, to clarify any question of law that has arisen in a civil or criminal case, and to give a binding interpretation on it.
The Supreme Court accepts cases for trial at its own discretion, if it recognizes them as sufficiently significant and generally significant, which is relatively rare: in response to thousands of appeals, decisions are made annually on only 120-160 cases.
In this case, each judge expresses his opinion, after which usually one of the judges formulates the position of the majority, i.e. the decision of the court, and the rest either fully agree with it, or join the conclusion, but disagree on the reasoning of the decision, or, finally, express their opinion, opposite to the position of the majority (all opinions of the judges are published).
Court of Appeal
The Courts of Appeal were created in 1891 as courts of intermediate jurisdiction between the U.S. Supreme Court and the district courts. There are currently 13 courts of appeals: one in the District of Columbia, II in each of the appellate districts, covering the territory from 3 to 10 states and having its own official number, and finally, established in 1982, the Court of Appeals of Federal Jurisdiction, which considers complaints in customs and patent cases and complaints against decisions of the Court of Claims.
Each Court of Appeal is composed of 4 to 23 judges. The duties of the chairman are assigned to one of them who is the longest member of this court, but has not reached 70 years of age. One of the members of the US Supreme Court takes part in the work of each court of appeal (they are assigned to one or two courts of appeal).
The first 12 courts of appeal hear appeals against sentences and decisions of district courts, against decisions of a number of administrative bodies if they are found to be in violation of legal norms, and also issue orders on certain issues as a court of first instance.
As a general rule, cases are heard by a panel of three judges, but other than on appeal, they may be heard by one or two judges. Plenary sessions of the Court of Appeal are convened to hear complaints against decisions of judges and collegiums of the Court of Appeal, as well as to resolve disputes between judges.
In connection with a significant increase in the number of cases considered by the courts of appeal (almost 10 times over the period 1960-1980), they have been sharply limited or in some cases completely canceled by the parties and other measures are being taken to speed up the procedure for examining cases.
District courts are the backbone of the federal court system. The entire territory of the country is divided into districts, taking into account the boundaries between the states, so that in one state there are from one to four districts.
Corresponding district courts have also been established in four US overseas territories. In total, there are currently 95 district courts, each of which has from 2 to 27 judges (one of them is appointed by the chairman according to the same rules as in the courts of appeal).
They consider at first instance civil and criminal cases falling within the competence of federal justice, as well as complaints against the actions of administrative departments. Criminal and civil lawsuits in most categories of cases over $20 are heard by jury if the defendant or plaintiff insists.
Federal magistrates function at the district courts (this position was established in 1968). They are mainly engaged in the preparation of cases for hearing and control over the execution of court decisions.
Magistrates have the right to independently try criminal cases on charges of petty crimes, if they are punishable by imprisonment for a term of up to one year and a fine of up to $1,000, but provided that the accused does not insist on hearing his case before a district court judge.
In 1978, each of the district courts, as their additional bodies, established bankruptcy courts, which are entrusted with the consideration of this very numerous category of cases. Appeals against their decisions can usually be made to the District Court.
Along with the system of general courts, there are several specialized federal courts. Their system underwent significant changes in 1982. An important place in it is occupied by the Claims Court. It handles civil claims by individuals and corporations against the US government in excess of $10,000 for damages for breach of contract and a variety of other grounds.
In 1980, the former Customs Court was renamed into the Court for Foreign Trade. It consists of nine judges who can make decisions alone and sit either in New York, where it is headquartered, or, if necessary, in one of the other US port cities. In a number of other federal judicial institutions with different specializations, in particular, there is an independent Tax Court, which considers disputes that arise in connection with the determination of the amount of federal taxes and their payment.