Federal vs. State Level Court Systems

Unique as its people and culture, the U.S. court system—as a judicial system, is multiple autonomous courts within the U.S. government.

As an integrated system, the federal court system is divided into numerous geographic units and various levels of hierarchy; with each of the 51 States has its own court system with a unique local courts system that operates within each of them (Fine, 2008).

Under the present set-up (dual federal/state court structure), the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of federal law question and at the same time the respective states’ supreme courts has the ultimate authority to interpret matters of the law within its respective spheres. And as far as federal constitutional or statutory matters, the federal courts have the power to and primacy of jurisdiction in deciding whether the state law violates federal law (Fine, 2008).

As a result, the present system complicated due to the multiple sources of law, and courts of one system are often called upon to interpret and apply the laws of another jurisdiction (Fine, 2008).

Federal Court System History

The Supreme Court of the United StatesArticle III of the Federal Constitution enunciated that the repository of judicial power of the federal government in is in “one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts” as the Congress might decide to establish from time. In the same manner, the fundamental law provides the Supreme Court with original jurisdiction in cases which pertains to states or union member as a party as well as those involving diplomats. Though this was the case, Congress as the representative of the people, being mandated by the Constitution, at its discretion could determine the size and responsibilities of the Court. During the early life of the union, the 1987 Judiciary Act established a Supreme Court composed of one chief justice and five associate justices.

The Supreme Court’s membership grew as the union expands. In 1807 –a seventh justice was added, in 1837– an eighth and ninth justice joined the court, and 1863-with the establishment of the Tenth Circuit, a tenth justice was added. Be that as it may, 1866 is the year wherein Congress reduced the Court’s size seven justices. In 1869, the number of sitting justices fell to eight before an act of 1869 provided for nine justices, one for each of the judicial circuits established in 1866. The size of the Court has since remained the same (The Supreme Court of the United States and the Federal Judiciary, 2008).

There was a time in the Court’s history that Congress required justices of the Supreme Court to preside with the local federal judges on the U.S. circuit courts that met in judicial districts throughout the nation. Congress’ aimed at proactive participation of Supreme Court justices in the federal judiciary’s trial courts and at the same time be familiar with the state courts’ procedures. This circuit riding takes toll to the justices’ work in the capital; thus, Congress in 1793 reduced the number of justices required to hold circuit court trial from two to one and in 1801 Judiciary Act, Congress all together created separate circuit judgeships and freed the justices from any circuit court duties, though the latter was short lived. Finally, in 1911, the circuit duty was made optional by Congress (The Supreme Court of the United States and the Federal Judiciary, 2008).

History showed us that the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is mostly deciding most civil appeals and the justices themselves, had little control over an overcrowded dockets. To remedy this problem, Congress in 1891 established the circuit courts of appeals that authorize the justices to grant review through certiorari and allowed the courts of appeals to certify other cases for appeal to the high Court.

The law in effect restricted the automatic appeal to the Supreme Court as a matter of right. In 1925’s Judges Bill had increased the justices’ discretion on what cases to entertain in appeal and in 1988 Congress eliminated almost all types of mandatory jurisdiction—further strengthening justices’ prerogative on what cases they would like to hear in their court term (The Supreme Court of the United States and the Federal Judiciary, 2008).

To strengthen the federal courts, The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts was established in 1939 headed by a director who is appointed by the Chief Justice in consultation with the Judicial Conference which he presides pursuant to the 1990 amendment (The Supreme Court of the United States and the Federal Judiciary, 2008).

The U.S. Courts of AppealsDue to the ever growing number of cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Courts, US Congress in an effort to relieve the Supreme Courts with these burdens and concentrate on its primary mandate, 1891 Judiciary Act was passed establishing nine courts of appeals, one for each judicial circuit. The Evarts act of 1891 had provided the U.S. courts of appeals jurisdiction over the great majority of appeals from the U.S. district courts and the U.S. circuit courts. In effect, the Act limits the cases that could be elevated to the Supreme Court on appeal. This move by Congress in easing case load of the Supreme Court was repeated in the Judiciary Act of 1925. It was in 1930s the court acquired jurisdiction over administrative appeals from federal regulatory agencies (The U.S. Courts of Appeals and the Federal Judiciary, 2008).

Like the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court Appeals’ administrative responsibility over the courts of appeals judges was given in 1939. As Union grew in numbers and population in sizes, courts of appeals increased. Congress in 1893, created a Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. Additional circuits were created in 1929—Tenth and in 1980—Eleventh circuits respectively. In 1982, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, by Act of Congress, combined the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the U.S. Court of Claims’ jurisdictions into one court (The U.S. Courts of Appeals and the Federal Judiciary, 2008).

There was a Commission on Revision of the Federal Court Appellate System pursuant to Congress’ Act in 1973 with the thought of reviewing the present set-up. The plan was still in the proposal stage.   The 1948 Judicial Code of 1948 has changed the title of the federal appellate courts to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Finally, there are thirteen appellate courts today with a total of 179 judgeships (The U.S. Courts of Appeals and the Federal Judiciary, 2008).