This series is designed to teach you about our legal structure in the context of current political events. Go deeper, past news articles, with this infographic.
This map's topic is Federal Courts.
The Constitution created the Judicial branch, but it left a lot of things unclear. This map shows exactly what the Constitution defined and how the other branches fill the gaps. It also shows how the state court system interacts with the federal system.
A lawyer wanting to bring a case in federal court pays close attention to the information outlined here.
Article III created the judicial branch.
Section 1 gives a general “judicial” power to the Supreme Court and to lower federal courts that Congress creates. These federal courts have the power to review cases and to determine what is fair. See Legislative column for a discussion on the lower federal courts Congress established. Also see our page on Federal Court Hierarchy.
Section 2 defines what qualifies as a federal “case.” It specifies two categories of federal jurisdiction:
Federal Question Jurisdiction. These cases are federal based on the subject of the case. The suit is about violation of a federal law.
Diversity Jurisdiction. These cases are federal because the parties are from different states. See the Legislative column for rules Congress has made on Diversity Jurisdiction.
See our page on Federal vs. State Cases.
The Supreme Court clarifies additional Article III requirements.
The vagueness of the “case or controversy” requirement has caused confusion over the years. The Supreme Court has created four judicial doctrines to clarify it (see Judicial column).
Article II of the Constitution gives the President the power to appoint judges. This applies to both the Supreme Court and to lower courts. Specifically, it says the President has the power to make these appointments “with the advice and consent of the Senate.” Senate rules specify how the Senate may give “advice and consent.” See Legislative column for the Senate rules. These are relevant currently as Donald Trump makes the appointment to the Supreme Court for Neil Gorsuch.
The 11th Amendment says that States cannot be pulled into federal court without first consenting. This concept is based on states considering themselves “sovereign,” controlling themselves. It is mostly a “legal fiction,” meaning the lawyers can work around it. Today, states get sued in federal court all the time, but that’s because the 11th Amendment has been limited over time. In some cases, Congress waives the state’s right to immunity. In some cases, the state itself is not named as the defendant but rather an officer or a person acting for the state. A person suing a state for violating a federal law can request that the court force the state to stop violating the law, but the person cannot get monetary damages. Suing the state officer, on the other hand, might allow monetary damages.
Senate Rules on Appointing Judges
The Constitution gives the President authority to appoint Supreme Court justices and lower court judges “with advice and consent of the Senate.” Senate Rules require a majority vote to give “advice and consent,” but before they can vote, they must formally end debate (“cloture”). Before 2013, ending debate required a “super” majority of 60 members. This applied to both Supreme Court nominations and to lower court nominations. In 2013, when President Obama’s lower court nominations were stalled by Republican filibusters (keeping the debate from ending), the Senate changed the rule to end debate, only to lower court nominations, to require just a simple majority (51, if all senators vote). On April 6, 2017, to avoid Democratic filibuster on the Trump Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, the Republican-controlled Senate changed the rule as applied to Supreme Court nominations. For the first time in history, Senate debate on Supreme Court nominations can end with just a simple majority vote.
Congress created lower federal courts.
Judiciary Act of 1798 created the first federal District Courts. These are the trial courts (the first level, where the case starts and each side makes its case).
Judiciary Act of 1891 created the Circuit Courts of Appeals. They were created to decrease the caseload burden of the Supreme Court.
Congress has made other changes to the federal courts system over the years. To see the current federal court hierarchy, see here.
Congress defined federal court jurisdiction.
In the Judiciary Act of 1798, Congress defined Diversity Jurisdiction (when people can sue in federal court because they are from different states). It also required that cases seeking federal jurisdiction must allege that the stakes are over a particular dollar amount. In 1789, that number was $500. Today, suits wanting Diversity Jurisdiction must allege the stakes are over $75,000. See the current rule here.
In the Jurisdiction and Removal Act of 1875, Congress defined Federal Question Jurisdiction as “civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” This means the decision of the case rides on a question of federal law.
Over the years, Congress has changed its definitions of jurisdiction many times. Federal court jurisdiction is a notoriously fuzzy area of law, and there are many Supreme Court rulings that try to create boundaries.
Congress determines whether people can sue under a given law. Some laws intend for citizens to sue to enforce them. Some laws intend for only the government to enforce them. Allowing citizens to sue is called a “private right of action.” A law might state that explicitly. If the law is not explicit, there might be an “implied right of action.” The latter requires reviewing court cases.
president and Executive agencies
The President appoints Supreme Court Justices and lower federal judges.
The Department of Justice represents the federal government in court.
Suits against the federal government.
Citizens can sue the federal government (the President or executive agencies) for violating the Constitution. There is a legislative provision that allows a "private right of action" for these suits.
A doctrine is a set of rules established through the courts. As we know, the courts interpret laws but they do not make laws (not technically anyway, due to Separation of Powers). When the Supreme Court gives a bunch of rulings on a particular issue, we call this court doctrine. It creates precedent, which is court-established law (or "caselaw").
Article III Doctrines (further defining a federal case):
The Court, especially the Supreme Court, does not like to waste its time. It also likes to avoid some sticky matters. So the Supreme Court has established several doctrines to limit cases from getting into federal court. The following are interpretations of Article III of the Constitution:
Standing Doctrine. Is the plaintiff in the right position to bring the case? There are three tests to see if the person bringing the case is the right type of person to bring it:
Standing Part 1: Injury-in-Fact. Is the plaintiff actually injured, or is the plaintiff trying to represent a “generalized grievance”?
Standing Part 2: Causation. Is the defendant responsible for the plaintiff’s injury?
Standing Part 3: Redressability. If the court rules for the plaintiff, is that going to resolve the plaintiff’s injury?
See this publication for examples of cases.
Ripeness Doctrine. The court will not decide on an issue unless the harm is already being done or is practically certain to happen. The case must be “ripe” (ready).
In Poe v. Ullman (1961), the Supreme Court refused to hear a case by Connecticut couple challenging a new Connecticut law banning the sale and use of of contraception. The Court said the case was not “ripe” because the law was not yet effective (stores were still selling contraception). The Court said the case should be brought later, after the law starts affecting people.
However, in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the Supreme Court allowed a similar case to pass the ripeness test. A science teacher sued the state of Arkansas for a law that banned teaching of evolution in public schools. Although the state had not yet started prosecuting under the law, the Court said the state was certain enough to prosecute, and that it would prosecute someone in the position of the plaintiff if it did.
Mootness Doctrine. The problem must still be a problem. The court will not rule on an issue if it has already been resolved.
In Defunis v. Odegaard (1974), a white law school applicant had challenged the law school’s affirmative action policy, claiming he suffered by not being accepted. By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff was already a third-year law student at the school he was suing. The Court said the case was moot, i.e. already had been resolved.
Advisory Opinions. The court does not rule on hypothetical scenarios. As early on George Washington’s presidency, the Supreme Court made it clear that its role is not to give advice, but only to resolve real live controversies. If the dispute is only hypothetical, the Court will not give its opinion. See this publication for a discussion.
States have their own court systems, separate from the federal court system. State courts interact with the federal system in the following ways:
The state system converges with the federal system at the Supreme Court, which is the last level of appeal after a state’s highest court.
A federal court may ask a state court for its opinion, which happens sometimes if a federal court is trying to resolve a question about a state law.
Certain cases can be “removed” from state court and brought to federal court, if they qualify for federal jurisdiction.
See the 11th Amendment (in the Constitution section above) for a discussion of states being sued in federal court.