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United States district court

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Map of the boundaries of the United States courts of appeals (by color) and United States District Courts.  All District Courts lie within the boundary of a single jurisdiction, usually in a state (heavier lines); some states have more than one District Court (lighter lines denote those jurisdictions)
Map of the boundaries of the United States courts of appeals (by color) and United States District Courts. All District Courts lie within the boundary of a single jurisdiction, usually in a state (heavier lines); some states have more than one District Court (lighter lines denote those jurisdictions)

The United States district courts are the general trial courts of the United States federal court system. Both civil and criminal cases are filed in the district court, which is a court of law, equity, and admiralty. There is a United States bankruptcy court associated with each United States district court. Each federal judicial district has at least one courthouse, and many districts have more than one. The formal name of a district court is "the United States District Court for" the name of the district—for example, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

In contrast to the Supreme Court, which was established by Article III of the Constitution, the district courts were established by Congress.[note 1] There is no constitutional requirement that district courts exist at all. Indeed, after the ratification of the Constitution, some opponents of a strong federal judiciary urged that, outside jurisdictions under direct federal control, like Washington, D.C., and the territories, the federal court system be limited to the Supreme Court, which would hear appeals from state courts. This view did not prevail, however, and the first Congress created the district court system that is still in place today.

There is at least one judicial district for each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The insular areas of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the United States Virgin Islands each have one territorial court; these courts are called "district courts" and exercise the same jurisdiction as district courts,[1][2] but differ from district courts in that territorial courts are Article IV courts, with judges who serve ten-year terms rather than the lifetime tenure of judges of Article III courts, such as the district court judges.[2]

There are 89 districts in the 50 states, with a total of 94 districts including territories.[3]

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • ✪ The US Federal Court System: Who is on the Federal Courts?
  • ✪ The US Federal Court System: What Even ARE the Courts?
  • ✪ Pathways to the Bench: U.S. District Court Judge Julie A. Robinson
  • ✪ U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois - Congressional Swearing-In Ceremony
  • ✪ Pathways to the Bench: U.S. District Court Judge Juan Sánchez


[♪INTRO] Now that we know what kinds of federal courts we have in the US, and how judges get appointed, it’s time to start judging, right? So, what happens between getting a lifetime appointment and slamming some gavels on some stuff? Well, it depends on who’s doing the judging. So before we start shouting “objection!” let’s talk about who is even on the courts. By now, we know that judges are usually selected because their peers in the legal world, the Senate, and the President, believe they are qualified to interpret law in the fairest way possible. But it’s important that we recognize that in the US, all the forces that shape who has access to the kind of education and job opportunities, that qualify you to become a judge in the first place, aren’t always fair. Let’s take a look at the demographics of who sits on our courts. Since the federal court system was created, a total of 3,607 people have been federal judges. That might sound like a lot, but if you compare it to all of the people who have ever lived in the US, that is a tiny club. Even smaller is the group of women judges—only 417 women have ever sat on federal courts. The first woman to sit on one of the federal courts we’ve discussed, was Florence Allen who was confirmed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1933. Judge Allen paved the way for more equality in the court system by advocating for women’s rights from the bench, encouraging young women to become lawyers, and speaking up in favor of allowing women to be part of juries. But even though she was popular in her day, and people who knew her and worked with her hoped she’d become the first woman Supreme Court Justice, that milestone didn’t happen until almost 50 years later, when Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed. But the fact is, we had an all-male Supreme Court for nearly 200 years. That’s why the Supreme Court’s most notorious justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said there will be enough women on the court “when there are nine,” highlighting that we still have a long way to go to shift the gender balance of the courts. When we look at the racial and ethnic demographics of the courts, things are even less balanced. People of color make up just over one tenth of federal judges in history, and even when William Henry Hastie became the first African American federal judge in 1937, non-white judges were still seen as unqualified for the job by many of their white peers. Some Senators were so angry about his appointment that Judge Hastie resigned from the District Court in 1937 and went back to teaching law school, until he got appointed again, this time to the federal court of appeals, in 1950. It was one of Judge Hastie’s students, Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967. But, a lot of Americans had to wait way longer than that to see themselves represented in the courts. For example, Diane Humetewa became the first female Native American federal judge in 2014. 2014! All this is important because federal judges are supposed to be unbiased. But federal judges also happen to be humans, and unbiased is something that humans rarely are. One of the best ways to correct for that is to make sure that our judges bring all sorts of backgrounds and beliefs and experiences to the table so that during the discussion and debate that’s part of the legal process, they can balance each other out. But because federal judges have lifetime appointments, it can take a pretty long time for the makeup of our courts to reflect what our country looks like today. Now, in addition to the identities and ideas that a judge brings to the court, we should also look at how they do their jobs once they get there. Sometimes we get the appointment process right and the new judicial nominee takes their responsibility really seriously—they carefully consider their cases, and try to make as close to an objective decision as they can, leaving their own personal interests at the door. And sometimes we get it wrong. Even though federal judges get a lifetime appointment, the Senate can decide to kick them out if they break federal law, or if enough Senators decide the judge is unfit for the job— Like the first judge to get removed from their position—John Pickering. He got kicked off the court in 1804 for, among other things, intoxication on the bench. Like we said, The American Bar Association is not that kind of bar! But most of the time when a judge is removed—which is still pretty rare—it’s because they tried to use their position for personal gain. Like district court judges Walter Nixon and G. Thomas Porteous Jr, who got the boot for accepting bribes. Fortunately, because of all the work that happens in the process of confirming a judge to check out and see if the nominees have a shady past, it usually doesn’t come to that. Ideally, only the honest and qualified judges get confirmed. So we’ve got judges. Hopefully they’re representative of the country they serve and they’re ready to do their job without self interest. Now what? What’s the right way to actually be a judge? Well, the jury’s still out, pun entirely intended. Because the way a judge can interpret the law falls on a spectrum. On one side, we have judicial activism—judges who interpret the law this way usually think about law as something that should be constantly changing along with us—after all, the world the constitution was written in looks a lot different from the world today, and doesn’t always reflect the social and political views we hold today—for instance, slavery is real bad. They might believe that their goal is to interpret the general spirit of those laws, but that the courts should have just as much of a role as Congress or the President in shaping national policy. On the other side of the spectrum is judicial restraint. Judges that think restraint is important like to look back at precedent, or the way that cases have been decided in the past, or the ways that laws have been interpreted before. In their view, shaping policy is Congress’s job alone, and their job as judges is only to interpret the original language of the Constitution as closely as they can. Now, the words judicial activism and judicial restraint aren’t perfect either. Even though restraint sounds like it might be more neutral, deciding not to take our changing views and attitudes into account can make just as much of a difference in national policy as deciding to act on them. And neither side of this spectrum is any more liberal or conservative than the other, either. But the way a judge interprets their role can have a HUGE effect on how they rule on cases. For instance, practicing judicial restraint is what prevented the courts from naturalizing former slaves as US citizens in Dred Scott v. Sandford because they interpreted the constitution within the social and political context it was written in 1787. We have this idea that judges should be perfectly neutral—but humans aren’t perfectly neutral. And neither one of these ways of interpreting the law is a perfectly neutral stance, which is what makes the job of being a federal judge so hard. As a judge, you not only have to understand all of our complex federal laws, but you also have to figure out which philosophy is going to guide how you understand them—knowing that even the smallest shift you make in your own thinking can have huge ripples in the lives of the people you serve. That’s right—while the federal court system may seem like the smallest branch of our government, its impact is pretty major. We’ll get into why the courts even matter and what that means for your life next time—because they decide all sorts of things that affect you— from who you can marry to how much you pay for a tomato at the grocery store. [♪OUTRO]


Other federal trial courts

There are other federal trial courts that have nationwide jurisdiction over certain types of cases, but the district court also has concurrent jurisdiction over many of those cases, and the district court is the only one with jurisdiction over civilian criminal cases.

The United States Court of International Trade addresses cases involving international trade and customs issues. The United States Court of Federal Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over most claims for money damages against the United States, including disputes over federal contracts, unlawful takings of private property by the federal government, and suits for injury on federal property or by a federal employee. The United States Tax Court has jurisdiction over contested pre-assessment determinations of taxes.


A judge of a United States district court is officially titled a "United States District Judge". Other federal judges, including circuit judges and Supreme Court Justices, can also sit in a district court upon assignment by the chief judge of the circuit or by the Chief Justice of the United States. The number of judges in each district court (and the structure of the judicial system generally) is set by Congress in the United States Code. The President appoints the federal judges for terms of good behavior (subject to the advice and consent of the Senate), so the nominees often share at least some of his or her convictions. In states represented by a senator of the President's party, the senator (or the more senior of them if both senators are of the president's party) has substantial input into the nominating process, and through a tradition known as senatorial courtesy can exercise an unofficial veto over a nominee unacceptable to the senator.

With the exception of the territorial courts (Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands), federal district judges are Article III judges appointed for life, and can be removed involuntarily only when they violate the standard of "good behavior". The sole method of involuntary removal of a judge is through impeachment by the United States House of Representatives followed by a trial in the United States Senate and a conviction by a two-thirds vote. Otherwise, a judge, even if convicted of a felony criminal offense by a jury, is entitled to hold office until retirement or death. In the history of the United States, only twelve judges have been impeached by the House, and only seven have been removed following conviction in the Senate. (For a table that includes the twelve impeached judges, see Impeachment in the United States.)

A judge who has reached the age of 65 (or has become disabled) may retire or elect to go on senior status and keep working. Such senior judges are not counted in the quota of active judges for the district and do only whatever work they are assigned by the chief judge of the district, but they keep their offices (called "chambers") and staff, and many of them work full-time. A federal judge is addressed in writing as "The Honorable John/Jane Doe" or "Hon. John/Jane Doe" and in speech as "Judge" or "Judge Doe" or, when presiding in court, "Your Honor".

District judges usually concentrate on managing their court's overall caseload, supervising trials, and writing opinions in response to important motions like the motion for summary judgment. Since the 1960s, routine tasks like resolving discovery disputes can, in the district judge's discretion, be referred to magistrate judges. Magistrate judges can also be requested to prepare reports and recommendations on contested matters for the district judge's consideration or, with the consent of all parties, to assume complete jurisdiction over a case including conducting the trial.

Federal magistrate judges are appointed by each district court pursuant to statute. They are appointed for an eight-year term and may be reappointed for additional eight-year terms. A magistrate judge may be removed "for incompetency, misconduct, neglect of duty, or physical or mental disability".[4] A magistrate judgeship may be a stepping stone to a district judgeship nomination.

As of 2010, there were 678 authorized district court judgeships.[5] A study put forth by Brennan Center for Justice at New York University of Law found that under the Obama administration and especially in the year 2009 there have been a "uniquely high" number of vacancies in Federal Court, averaging 60 or more from the years 2009 to 2013. The Obama administration has blamed Senate Republicans for opposing (and therefore, not confirming) presidential nominations, while the Republicans say Obama has been slow to nominate.[citation needed]


Each district court appoints a clerk, who is responsible for overseeing filings made with the court, maintaining the court’s records, processing fees, fines, and restitution, and managing the non-judicial work of the court, including information technology, budget, procurement, human resources, and financial. Clerks may appoint deputies, clerical assistants, and employees to carry out the work of the court. The clerk of each district court must reside in the district for which the clerk is appointed, except that the clerk of the District of Columbia and the clerk of the Southern District of New York may reside within twenty miles of their respective districts.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized the Supreme Court and the judge of each U.S. District Court to appoint a clerk to assist with the administration of federal judicial business in those courts. The clerk for each district court was to also serve as clerk of the corresponding circuit court. The Judiciary Act required each clerk to issue the writs summoning jurors and "to record the decrees, judgments and determinations of the court of which he is clerk."

The Judicial Code (28 U.S.C. § 751) provides that the clerk is appointed, and may be removed, by the court. The clerk's duties are prescribed by the statute, by the court's customs and practices, and by policy established by the Judicial Conference of the United States. The clerk is appointed by order of the court en banc to serve the entire court. The role of the clerk and deputies or assistants should not be confused with the court's law clerks, who assist the judges by conducting research and preparing drafts of opinions.

To be eligible to serve as a clerk, a person must have a minimum of 10 years of progressively responsible administrative experience in public service or business that provides a thorough understanding of organizational, procedural, and human aspects of managing an organization, and at least 3 of the 10 years must have been in a position of substantial management responsibility. An attorney may substitute the active practice of law on a year-for-year basis for the management or administrative experience requirement. Clerks do not have to be licensed attorneys, but some courts specify that a law degree is a preference for employment.


Unlike some state courts, the power of federal courts to hear cases and controversies is strictly limited. Federal courts may not decide every case that happens to come before them. In order for a district court to entertain a lawsuit, Congress must first grant the court subject matter jurisdiction over the type of dispute in question.

The district courts exercise original jurisdiction over—that is, they are empowered to conduct trials in—the following types of cases:

  • Civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States;[6]
  • Certain civil actions between citizens of different states;[7]
  • Civil actions within the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction of the United States;[8]
  • Criminal prosecutions brought by the United States;[9]
  • Civil actions in which the United States is a party;[10] and
  • Many other types of cases and controversies[11]

For most of these cases, the jurisdiction of the federal district courts is concurrent with that of the state courts. In other words, a plaintiff can choose to bring these cases in either a federal district court or a state court. Congress has established a procedure whereby a party, typically the defendant, can "remove" a case from state court to federal court, provided that the federal court also has original jurisdiction over the matter (meaning that the case could have been filed in federal court initially).[12] If the party that initially filed the case in state court believes that removal was improper, that party can ask the district court to "remand" the case to the state court system. For certain matters, such as patent and copyright infringement disputes and prosecutions for federal crimes, the jurisdiction of the district courts is exclusive of that of the state courts, meaning that only federal courts can hear those cases.[note 2]

In addition to their original jurisdiction, the district courts have appellate jurisdiction over a very limited class of judgments, orders, and decrees.[13]


United States District Court Attorney Admissions Reciprocity Map
United States District Court Attorney Admissions Reciprocity Map

In order to represent a party in a case in a district court, a person must be an attorney at law and generally must be admitted to the bar of that particular court. The United States usually does not have a separate bar examination for federal practice (except with respect to patent practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office). Admission to the bar of a district court is generally available to any attorney who is admitted to practice law in the state where the district court sits.[note 3]

56 districts (around 60% of all district courts) require an attorney to be admitted to practice in the state where the district court sits. The other 39 districts (around 40% of all district courts) extend admission to certain lawyers admitted in other states, although conditions vary from court to court. For example, the district courts in New York City (Southern District of New York and Eastern District of New York) extend admission to attorneys admitted to the bar in Connecticut or Vermont and to the district court in that state, but otherwise require attorneys to be admitted to the New York bar. Only 13 districts extend admission to attorneys admitted to any U.S. state bar.[14][15]

The attorney generally submits an application with a fee and takes the oath of admission. Local practice varies as to whether the oath is given in writing or in open court before a judge of the district. A "sponsor" admitted to the court's bar is often required. Several district courts require attorneys seeking admission to their bars to take an additional bar examination on federal law, including the following: the Southern District of Ohio,[16] the Northern District of Florida,[17] and the District of Puerto Rico.[18]

Pro hac vice admission is also available in most federal district courts on a case-by-case basis. Most district courts require pro hac vice attorneys to associate with an attorney admitted to practice before the court.[14]


Generally, a final ruling by a district court in either a civil or a criminal case can be appealed to the United States court of appeals in the federal judicial circuit in which the district court is located, except that some district court rulings involving patents and certain other specialized matters must be appealed instead to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and in a very few cases the appeal may be taken directly to the United States Supreme Court.

Largest and busiest district courts

United States Court House in downtown Los Angeles, California, one of several sites used by the Central District of California.
United States Court House in downtown Los Angeles, California, one of several sites used by the Central District of California.

The Central District of California is the largest federal district by population;[19] it includes all five counties that make up Greater Los Angeles. By contrast, New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area are divided between the Southern District of New York (which includes Manhattan, The Bronx and Westchester County) and the Eastern District of New York (which includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Nassau County and Suffolk County). New York suburbs in Connecticut and New Jersey are covered by the District of Connecticut and District of New Jersey, respectively.

The Southern District of New York and the Central District of California are the largest federal districts by number of judges, with 28 and 27, respectively.[20]

In 2007, the busiest district courts in terms of criminal federal felony filings were the District of New Mexico, Western District of Texas, Southern District of Texas, and the District of Arizona. These four districts all share the border with Mexico.[21] A crackdown on illegal immigration resulted in 75 percent of the criminal cases filed in the 94 district courts in 2007 being filed in these four districts and the other district that borders Mexico, the Southern District of California.[22] The busiest patent litigation court is the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, with the most patent lawsuits filed there nearly every year.[23]

Extinct district courts

Subdivided district courts

Most extinct district courts have disappeared by being divided into smaller districts. The following courts were subdivided out of existence: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin.

Other abolished district courts

On rare occasions, an extinct district court was extinguished by merging it with other district courts. In every case except one, this has restored a district court that had been subdivided:

There are a few additional extinct district courts that fall into neither of the above two patterns.

See also



  1. ^ Article III of the Constitution provides that the "judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in . . . such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."
  2. ^ In some situations, federal law provides both for the exclusive jurisdiction of federal courts and for the immunity of the defendant from the power of those courts. One example of this is patent-infringement claims against a state government: only the federal courts may hear patent cases, but the states have sovereign immunity from such suits under the Eleventh Amendment. Although a state may choose to waive its immunity in such a case and allow it to proceed to trial, if it does not do so, the plaintiff has no recourse. This doctrine was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999).
  3. ^ Nearly all district courts have a Local Rule 11.1 or 83.1 that describes the appropriate state judicial institution which admits attorneys to practice (either the state bar association or an office or committee of the state supreme court).


  1. ^ Article III Judges Division (2001-08-01). "An Introduction for Judges and Judicial Administrators in Other Countries" (PDF). The Federal Court System in the United States. Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-05-13. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  2. ^ a b "Territorial Courts". History of the Federal Judiciary. Federal Judicial Center. Archived from the original on May 14, 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  3. ^ "U. S. Courts | Frequently Asked Questions". Archived from the original on 2009-05-26. Retrieved 2009-05-26.
  4. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 631
  5. ^ Federal Judgeships, United States Courts.
  6. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 1331
  7. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 1332
  8. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 1333
  9. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 3231
  10. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 1345 (United States as plaintiff); 28 U.S.C. § 1346 (United States as defendant)
  11. ^ Title 28, United States Code, Chapter 85.
  12. ^ "28 USC 1441".
  13. ^ See, e.g., 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1) (U.S. district courts are authorized to hear appeals from final judgments, orders, and decrees of U.S. bankruptcy judges).
  14. ^ a b "Survey of Admission Rules in Federal District Courts" (PDF). U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. 2015. Retrieved 2017-10-16.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Local Rule 83.3, Local Rules of the Southern District of Ohio.
  17. ^ Local Rule 11.1, Local Rules of the Northern District of Florida,
  18. ^ Local Rule 83.1, Local Rules of the District of Puerto Rico.
  19. ^ Our District - USAO-CDCA
  20. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 133
  21. ^ Border Crackdown Jams US Federal Courts (May 7, 2007).
  22. ^ Goldman, Russell (July 23, 2008). "What's Clogging the Courts? Ask America's Busiest Judge". ABC News.
  23. ^ Lex Machina, 2016 Third Quarter Trends,
  24. ^ a b c Willoughby Rodman, History of the Bench and Bar of Southern California (1909), p. 46.

External links

This page was last edited on 25 March 2019, at 21:23
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