Daily Operations of the Judicial Branch
Daily Operations of the Judicial Branch
The federal judiciary has trial courts for handling cases under the nation's laws. The trial courts are called federal district courts. Federal district judges are in charge of cases in the district courts. Appellate courts called circuit courts of appeals review the work of the trial courts. Circuit judges are in charge of cases in the courts of appeals. The highest appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court, reviews the work of both the courts of appeals and the district courts. The jurists on the Supreme Court are called justices.
The federal judiciary has special courts for hearing particular kinds of cases. These include the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The judiciary also has offices that handle administration and planning for the federal court system, including the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and the Federal Judicial Center.
Federal district courts
The United States and its territories are divided into ninety-four geographic districts. Each district has at least one federal district court. Some districts are divided into divisions, each of which has a federal district court. U.S. attorneys handle cases for the federal government in each district.
Federal district courts handle trials in criminal, civil, and bankruptcy cases. Criminal cases involve the violation of federal criminal laws. Civil cases are noncriminal disputes between private parties or between a private party and the government. Bankruptcy cases involve people or businesses who cannot pay their bills or debts.
Criminal cases begin when a U.S. attorney files federal criminal charges against a defendant. (State courts handle cases involving state criminal laws.) For some kinds of federal crimes, the U.S. attorney must first get an indictment, or formal charge, from a grand jury. A grand jury is a group of citizens who review whether the government has enough evidence to charge someone with a criminal violation. If so, the grand jury issues an indictment. Federal district judges oversee grand jury proceedings.
When a person is charged with a crime, a federal judge orders him or her to appear in district court for arraignment. During arraignment, the judge reads the charges to the defendant and asks whether the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, he or she normally pays a fine, gets probation (court supervision), or goes to jail for a period of time. If the defendant pleads not guilty, he or she forces the government to prove the charges at a trial. Defendants have a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney at all criminal proceedings, hearings, and trials, including arraignment.
Federal district judges oversee trials of defendants who plead not guilty. The parties, meaning the government and the defendant, begin by selecting a jury of twelve people who have been called randomly from the community for jury service. The parties give opening statements to the jury, explaining what they plan to prove during their cases. Next, each side gets to question witnesses and present physical evidence to the jury. During this phase, the judge applies rules of evidence to decide what testimony and physical evidence the jury is allowed to see and hear. The rules are supposed to prevent unreliable, irrelevant, and illegally obtained evidence from getting to a jury so the jury can make its decision based on lawful, reliable evidence. For example, courts are not supposed to allow juries to hear evidence the government gets by violating a person's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Near the end of the trial, the parties make closing arguments, explaining to the jury what they want the jury to decide.
After the parties present their evidence and make their arguments, it is time for the jury to decide the case. The federal district judge instructs the jury on the law that applies to the case. Then the jury retires to a private room to discuss the case. All twelve jurors must agree on a verdict to find the defendant guilty or not guilty.
If a jury finds a defendant not guilty, the government must accept the verdict. It cannot appeal, and it cannot try the defendant again for the same crime. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge sentences the defendant with a fine, probation, jail time, or a combination thereof. A defendant can accept the sentence or else appeal the jury's verdict based on errors made in the government's investigation, handling, and trial of the case. When the jurors' votes are not unanimous, the result
Article III of the U.S. Constitution covers the federal judiciary. The U.S. Supreme Court, circuit courts of appeals, and federal district courts get their powers from Article III. These courts are sometimes called Article III courts, or constitutional courts.
Article I of the Constitution covers Congress, which is the legislative branch of the government. Congress makes the nation's laws. Section 8 of Article I defines Congress's lawmaking power.
Congress has created special courts to handle cases that pertain to its lawmaking power. Such courts are called Article I courts, or legislative courts. They include the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the U.S. Tax Court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces hears appeals in cases involving members of America's armed forces, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Congress created the court under its Article I power "to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces."
Cases involving members of the armed forces normally begin with court-martial proceedings in one of the military branches. A court-martial happens when a member of the military is accused of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which contains the rules for military service. A court-martial may be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and from there to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims hears cases involving veterans' rights. Such cases begin in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a department under the president in the executive branch of government. In the department, the Board of Veterans Appeals issues decisions concerning veterans' rights. Veterans may appeal board decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and from there to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (an Article III court) and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Congress created the U.S. Tax Court under its Article I power "to lay and collect taxes." The court hears cases under the Internal Revenue Code, which contains the nation's tax laws. A case begins when the commissioner of internal revenue in the executive branch determines that a person owes federal taxes. If the person disagrees with the decision, he or she may file a petition to have the U.S. Tax Court hear the case. Parties may appeal the court's decision to a U.S. court of appeals and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Legislative courts have judges, but the judges do not have the rights of judges on constitutional courts. Legislative judges are appointed by the president for a fixed term of service. Instead of holding office for life, like Article III judges do, Article I judges may be fired for good cause, or a good reason. Finally, their salaries are subject to more congressional control than the salaries of Article III judges.
is called a hung jury. If a jury is hung, the government can try the defendant again for the same crime.
Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a jury trial in most federal cases. Defendants may, however, waive that right and be tried by a judge instead. Such trials are called bench trials. A defendant might choose a bench trial when the case is complicated or when he or she thinks a judge might be more lenient. Bench trials involve opening statements, presentation of evidence, and closing arguments, just like jury trials. The judge, however, decides the case instead of a jury. Sentencing and appeals happen the same way as in jury trials.
Civil cases begin when one party, called the plaintiff, files a complaint against another party, called the defendant. Complaints explain the legal dispute between the parties. Federal district courts handle civil cases arising under federal laws. They also handle civil cases arising under state laws when the parties are from different states and (as of 2005) the amount of their dispute is more than $75,000. Civil cases usually involve business disputes or cases in which one person injures another person or some property.
Defendants file an answer, disputing the charges in the plaintiff's complaint. Sometimes a defendant files a motion to dismiss a complaint. Such a motion challenges whether the plaintiff has a genuine legal dispute or whether the federal district court has the power to hear the case. District court judges hear such motions to decide whether a case may proceed or must be dismissed.
If the defendant answers the complaint and the court does not dismiss it, the parties proceed to discovery. Discovery requires both sides of the case to share any information they have about the case. Discovery involves answering written questions, sharing documents and evidence, and answering oral questions during depositions, or testimonies. In discovery, parties often disagree over what information they must share. Federal district judges apply rules of procedure to decide what evidence the parties must share and what they may keep to themselves. In general, parties must share all evidence that relates to the issues for trial. Parties, however, may keep evidence that is irrelevant to the case. They also do not have to share information protected by a privilege, such as statements they have made to their lawyers.
Most parties settle civil cases by agreement before getting to trial. If the parties fail to settle, the district judge holds a trial. Civil trials are much like criminal trials. The parties select a jury, give opening statements, present their cases through witnesses and physical evidence, and make closing arguments. The jury, which can have fewer than twelve people, decides the case based on the law explained by the judge. If the parties waive a jury trial, the judge decides the case without a jury. The party who loses may appeal to the U.S. court of appeals for the circuit in which the federal district court sits.
U.S. federal district courts have special courts and judges who handle bankruptcy cases. Bankruptcy is for individuals and business owners who do not have enough money to pay their bills and other debts. In a bankruptcy proceeding, a federal district judge helps the person or business divide the money he or she has among creditors. Creditors are people and businesses to whom the bankrupt person owes money. After going through bankruptcy, a person is able to eliminate most of his or her debts and bills without paying them fully. It is a chance to "start over" financially. A person who goes through bankruptcy, however, ends up with a poor credit rating, which makes it hard to get loans for automobiles, homes, and other expensive items. Under congressional law, federal courts have sole power to handle bankruptcy cases. State courts cannot handle them.
Circuit courts of appeals
The United States and its territories are divided into twelve geographic circuits. Eleven of them are numbered, each covering more than one state or territory. The twelfth covers the District of Columbia. Each circuit has a court of appeals with many circuit judges who handle the court's workload.
There is a thirteenth court of appeals called the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. It sits in Washington, D.C., to hear appeals in cases involving patents, international trade, and money claims against the federal government. A patent gives a person or business a protected right in a product or process. International trade is business that takes place across national borders.
Purpose of appeals
A person who loses his or her case in a federal district court may appeal the case to the court of appeals for the circuit in which the district court sits. A person begins an appeal by filing a notice of appeal. When it gets a notice of appeal, the federal district court transfers its record of the case to the court of appeals for review.
In an appeal, the court of appeals determines whether the federal district court judge or jury made any major errors in a case. A number of things can go wrong at the trial level. A judge might apply the wrong law when deciding a motion or instructing the jury. A judge might let the jury hear evidence that should have been kept out, or keep out evidence that the jury should have seen. A jury or judge might decide a case in a way that is unsupported by the evidence. In an appeal, the losing party asks the appellate court to reverse the district court's decision based on such errors.
Briefing, oral argument, and decisions
Appeals have three main stages. The first begins when the parties, usually represented by attorneys, file written briefs explaining their sides of the case. The person who filed the appeal, called the appellant, writes a brief explaining how the district court judge or jury made an error that needs to be corrected. The other side, called the appellee, files a brief explaining why he or she thinks the trial judge or jury did not make a serious mistake.
The second stage of an appeal is called an oral argument. An oral argument is a chance for the parties to appear before the judges who will decide the appeal. Normally, a panel of three circuit judges hears each case in the courts of appeals. Sometimes the court hears a case "en banc," which means every judge hears and decides it. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, for example, has a total of thirteen active judges as of March 2005.) During the oral argument, the judges get to ask the parties questions about the case. Attorneys for the parties usually write the briefs and handle the oral argument, but a person can do it alone.
After the oral argument, the panel meets in private to discuss the case. If they all agree on a result, the result is unanimous. If only two judges agree, they are called the majority. Normally, one of the judges in the three- or two-judge majority writes an opinion explaining the court's decision. A judge on the panel who agrees with the decision can write a concurring opinion to explain his or her position. A judge on the panel who disagrees with the decision can write a dissenting opinion, explaining why he or she thinks the court's decision is wrong.
According to Dexter Perkins in Charles Evans Hughes and American Democratic Statesmanship, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes (1862–1948) once said, "We are under a Constitution but the Constitution is what the judges say it is." Chief Justice Hughes was referring to judicial interpretation, which is the task of deciding what the Constitution and federal laws mean. Judicial interpretation is one of the most important tasks of the federal judiciary. Circuit court judges who write opinions affect future cases by interpreting the meaning of the federal Constitution and federal laws and regulations. Since most cases do not make it to the Supreme Court, circuit judges carry a lot of power when they engage in judicial interpretation.
Judicial review is the task of reviewing congressional laws, federal regulations, and executive action to determine whether they violate the Constitution. The Constitution does not specifically give this power to the federal judiciary. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the power for the judiciary in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison.
Judicial review is very controversial. Some believe that the people should have the final say on the constitutionality of government action. Federal judges are not elected by the people and cannot be removed from office once appointed by the president and the Senate. This means it is hard for the people to change a constitutional decision made by a court of appeals or the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is the only court specifically mentioned in the Constitution. It is the highest court in the federal judiciary. Nine justices serve on the Court. The head of the Court is called the chief justice, and the other eight are called associate justices.
The Supreme Court hears appeals, much like the circuit courts of appeals. People who lose in a circuit court of appeals or in the highest court of a state can ask the Supreme Court to review the case. Sometimes a party can appeal directly from a federal district court to the Supreme Court without going through a court of appeals.
Writs of certiorari
Unlike the circuit courts of appeals, the Supreme Court does not have to hear every appeal it receives. Instead, the Court normally has the power to pick which appeals to hear. It does so using a device called a writ of certiorari. (A writ is a court order, and certiorari is a Latin word that means "to certify a court case for review.")
A writ of certiorari is an order for a lower court to transmit the record in a case to the Supreme Court for review. Parties who want the Supreme Court to review a case file a petition, asking the Supreme Court to issue a writ for their case. The petition is a brief that explains why the case is important enough for the Court to consider.
The Supreme Court and the Presidential Election of 2000
Under the U.S. Constitution, presidents get elected through the electoral system. The Constitution does not give the Supreme Court a direct role in the process. In the election of 2000, however, the electoral system allowed the Supreme Court to play a role in the outcome.
Under the electoral system, each state gets a number of electors equal to the total number of senators and representatives they have in Congress. (Additionally, the District of Columbia gets a number of electors equal to the senators and representatives it would have if it was a state.) Each state gets to determine how to choose its electors.
As of 2005, the states allow voters to choose electors on election day in November of each election year. In December, after the November election results for choosing electors are final, the electors gather in their state capitals to vote for the next president and vice president. The presidential and vice presidential candidates who get the most electoral votes win the election.
The electoral system makes it possible for the result in one state to affect the outcome of the entire election. This is what happened in 2000. After election night on November 7, 2000, Texas governor George W. Bush (1946–) was just hundreds of votes ahead of Vice President Al Gore (1948–) in Florida. The candidate who won Florida was going to win the electoral vote in December, making him the next president.
Some of the counties in Florida had problems with their ballots, making it hard to determine which hole a voter had punched in making his or her selection. This made it possible that the official count in Florida was wrong. When an election is as close as the one in Florida was, the loser can ask for a recount. Gore requested recounts in four counties. Bush filed lawsuits to stop the recounts, and Gore filed lawsuits to force the recounts.
One of the lawsuits made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Bush v. Gore, Bush asked the Court to stop the Florida recounts. Bush's lawyers said the recounts would violate the U.S. Constitution, which says a state may not violate a person's right to equal protection of the laws. The Bush team said recounting ballots without a clear standard for which ballots should count and which should not count would violate the equal protection rights of the people who had punched their ballots clearly.
On December 12, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in the case. The Court sided with Bush and ordered the recounts in Florida to stop. This allowed Bush to win Florida, officially by 537 votes out of the almost six million cast in Florida. Bush became president of the United States in January 2001.
The Court typically chooses to hear a case only if it involves issues of law that have national importance. If the Court grants a petition, it normally limits review to those specific issues instead of reviewing every issue the parties want to present. The Supreme Court grants a petition for a writ of certiorari only if at least four of the nine justices want to review the case.
Briefing and oral argument
After the Supreme Court accepts a case for review, briefing and oral argument are much like in the circuit courts of appeals. Both sides file briefs explaining why they think the lower courts were right or wrong in how they decided the issues being reviewed. Then both sides appear for oral argument before the Court. Normally all nine justices hear and decide every case, so attorneys and people who argue before the Court can face questioning from nine justices at a time.
Conferences and decisions
After the justices read the briefs and hear oral argument, they meet in private conference to discuss the case. The conferences are not recorded, and the public never gets to see them. The chief justice normally begins by sharing his or her thoughts about a case. Then the associate justices speak in order of seniority, meaning how long they have served on the Court.
The Labor Amendment
After the American Civil War (1861–65), the United States adopted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution to outlaw slavery. It says, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have the power to enforce this [amendment] by appropriate legislation."
The Thirteenth Amendment clearly makes slavery illegal in the United States. It also makes involuntary servitude illegal. Involuntary servitude means being forced to work for someone against your will.
Some believe the Thirteenth Amendment is a labor amendment that gives workers constitutional rights. In Building Unions, Peter Kellman wrote:
[Workers] believed that freedom meant the abolition [elimination] of the condition of involuntary servitude both on and off the job. They reasoned that it was Congress's responsibility to make the amendment a reality in working-class life. They argued that denial of freedom of speech, assembly and organization on the job, or of the right to strike [stop working] and boycott [stop buying], was tantamount [equal] to involuntary servitude.
In Thirteenth Amendment cases, the Supreme Court has usually not supported workers' rights. The 1897 case of Robertson v. Baldwin is an example. In that case, two men signed contracts to serve as seamen on the private vessel Arago from San Francisco, California, for as long as the voyage might last. In Astoria, Oregon, the two men left the vessel because they were dissatisfied with their jobs.
Under a federal law, seamen who left a private vessel before their contracts ended could be arrested, forced to return to the vessel to work, and punished by imprisonment. The master of the Arago had the two men arrested and returned to the ship against their will. The two men still refused to work, so the Arago dropped them off in San Francisco, where they were arrested to be tried for federal crimes.
The men filed for a writ of habeas corpus, which is a document asking a court to release a person who is being imprisoned in violation of his or her rights. The seamen said imprisoning them for refusing to work violated the Thirteenth Amendment. The trial court rejected their argument and dismissed the writ, so the seamen appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a 7-1 decision (one justice did not participate), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. Writing for the Court, Justice Henry B. Brown (1836–1913) said forcing seamen to fulfill their private contracts did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment, for two reasons. First, the seamen made the contracts voluntarily, so the work could not be called involuntary servitude. Second, countries worldwide forced seamen to fulfill their contracts, and punished them with imprisonment for not doing so, as far back as 900 bce. According to Justice Brown, this meant America did not mean to outlaw such arrangements with the Thirteenth Amendment.
Justice John M. Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion, disagreeing with the Court's decision. Justice Harlan observed that the two seamen from the Arago "were seized, somewhat as runaway slaves were in the days of slavery, and committed to jail without bail, 'until the Arago was ready for sea."' Justice Harlan said a seaman who breaks a contract should have to pay damages like any other person who unlawfully breaks a contract. Forcing a seaman to serve against his will, however, was plainly involuntary servitude, according to Harlan.
In response to the idea that seamen had been forced to fulfill their contracts throughout history, Harlan wrote, "Those laws, whatever they may have been, were enacted at a time when no account was taken of a man as man, when human life and human liberty were regarded as of little value, and when the powers of government were employed to gratify the ambition and the pleasures of despotic [unfair] rulers rather than promote the welfare of the people."
After discussion, the justices vote on how to decide the case. It takes at least five justices to change the result from the lower courts. If the chief justice is part of the majority, he or she assigns one of the justices in the majority to write the Court's opinion to explain its decision. If the chief justice is not in the majority, the most senior justice in the majority assigns one of the majority justices to write the Court's opinion. As in the courts of appeals, other justices may write concurring and dissenting opinions, agreeing or disagreeing with the result.
Justices circulate their opinions before finishing them to give the other justices a chance to suggest changes. When the opinions are finished, the justice who wrote the Court's opinion usually announces the decision by reading a summary of it from the bench. At the same time, the Court distributes written copies of the full opinions.
U.S. Court of International Trade
The U.S. Court of International Trade is a special court that holds trials in civil cases involving international trade issues. International trade means business between a person or company in the United States and a person or company in another country. International trade cases can involve private disputes between such parties, or trade disputes between a private party and a government.
The U.S. Court of International Trade has headquarters in New York City. As of 2005, nine judges serve on the court. The head of the court, called the chief judge, assigns one judge to handle most trials. Sometimes a panel of three judges handles a case. Although the court sits in New York City, it can hold trials in federal courthouses across the nation.
A person who loses in the U.S. Court of International Trade may appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. A party who loses there may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
U.S. Court of Federal Claims
The U.S. Court of Federal Claims is a special court that sits in Washington, D.C. It holds trials in all cases, except tort cases, in which a party seeks money damages from the federal government. (Torts are injuries caused when someone violates a duty or obligation to another person. Examples include battery, defamation, and negligence. Battery is an unlawful physical encounter. Defamation is harming someone's reputation. Negligence is injury caused by carelessness.) One of the court's sixteen judges normally handles each trial. The party who loses may appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The party who loses there may ask the Supreme Court to review the case.
Administration and planning for the federal judiciary
The federal judiciary is an enormous operation with hundreds of judges and tens of thousands of employees nationwide. Each court has a clerk's office that handles administration for that specific court. To handle nationwide administration and planning for the federal judiciary, Congress created a number of government offices. These include the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and the Federal Judicial Center.
Judicial Conference of the United States
The Judicial Conference of the United States makes policies for administration of the federal judiciary. It is composed of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the chief judges of the thirteen circuit courts of appeals, one district judge from each of the twelve geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the U.S. Court of International Trade. Staff from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts helps the Judicial Conference do its job.
The Judicial Conference has a number of statutory duties. It surveys the condition of business in the federal courts and makes recommendations for better management. It makes plans for the assignment of judges to the courts of appeals and federal district courts. It studies the operation and effect of court rules for handling cases. Finally, it directs and supervises the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts
The Administrative Office of the United States Courts handles overall administration for and management of the federal judiciary. The chief justice of the Supreme Court appoints a director and deputy director to run the Administrative Office. In addition to administration, the Office runs federal judicial programs, makes policy recommendations to the Judicial Conference, and communicates with Congress on budget issues and other matters.
Federal Judicial Center
The Federal Judicial Center is the research and training arm of the federal judiciary. It is led by a board that consists of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, two circuit court judges, three district court judges, and the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The Federal Judicial Center studies the operation of the federal judiciary and makes policy recommendations to the Judicial Conference. It also runs training programs for judges and personnel of the federal judiciary.
For More Information
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