Map of the boundaries of the United States Courts of Appeals and United States District Courts
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. 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 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. District courts in three insular areas the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands exercise the same jurisdiction as Article III U.S. district courts. Despite their name, these courts are technically not "District Courts of the United States." Judges on these Article IV territorial courts do not enjoy the protections of Article Three of the Constitution, and serve terms of ten years rather than for life.
There are 89 districts in the 50 states, with a total of 94 districts including territories.
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.
United States district judges
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 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 8-year term and may be reappointed for additional 8-year terms. A magistrate judge may be removed "for incompetency, misconduct, neglect of duty, or physical or mental disability." A magistrate judgeship may be a stepping stone to a district judgeship nomination.
As of 2010, there were 678 authorized district court judgeships.
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. Though Congress may theoretically extend the federal courts' subject matter jurisdiction to the outer limits described in Article III of the Constitution, it has always chosen to give the courts a somewhat narrower power.
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;
- Certain civil actions between citizens of different states;
- Civil actions within the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction of the United States;
- Criminal prosecutions brought by the United States;
- Civil actions in which the United States is a party; and
- Many other types of cases and controversies
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. For certain matters, such as intellectual property disputes and prosecutions for federal crimes, the jurisdiction of the district courts is exclusive of that of the state courts.
In addition to their original jurisdiction, the district courts have appellate jurisdiction over a very limited class of judgments, orders, and decrees.
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 granted as a matter of course to any attorney who is admitted to practice law in the state where the district court sits. Many district courts also allow an attorney who has been admitted and remains an active member in good standing of any state, territory or the District of Columbia bar to become a member. The attorney submits his 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.
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, the Northern District of Florida, and the District of Puerto Rico.
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.
Busiest district courts
Eastern District of New York
The Central District of California is the largest federal district by population; it includes much of the Greater Los Angeles Area. By contrast, New York City and the surrounding metropolitan area are divided between the Southern District of New York (which includes Manhattan and The Bronx) and the Eastern District of New York (which includes Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island). 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.
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. 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.
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:
- Between 1794 and 1797, the United States District Court for the District of North Carolina was divided into the United States District Courts for the Districts of Edenton, New Bern, and Wilmington.
- Between 1801 and 1802, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey was divided into the United States District Courts for the Districts of East Jersey and West Jersey.
- When California was admitted as a state in 1850, it was initially divided into two districts, the Northern and the Southern. The Southern District of California was abolished on July 27, 1866, and the State made to constitute one district, the statute providing that the Judge of the Northern District exercise the powers of the United States District Court for the District of California, and that all records of the Southern District Court be delivered to the Clerk of the Northern District Court. Twenty years later, on August 5, 1886, Congress re-created the Southern District of California.
- Between 1911 and 1961, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina was divided into the United States District Courts for the Eastern and Western District of South Carolina.
- The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois was eliminated and a new United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois was created in its place on October 2, 1978.
There are a few additional extinct district courts that fall into neither of the above two patterns.
- From 1801 to 1802, the District of Columbia and pieces of Maryland and Virginia formed the United States District Court for the District of Potomac, which was the first United States district court to cross state lines. During the same period, the United States District Court for the District of Norfolk was carved out of another piece of Virginia. The United States District Courts for the Districts of Maryland and Virginia remained during this brief period.
- From 1801 to 1802, and again from 1802 to 1872, the state of North Carolina was subdivided into the United States District Courts for the Districts of Albemarle, Cape Fear, and Pamptico. These courts were extinguished when the state was reorganized into the United States District Courts for the Eastern and Western Districts of North Carolina.
- The United States District Court for the District of Orleans was renamed the United States District Court for the District of Louisiana when the Territory of Orleans became the State of Louisiana.
- The United States District Court for the Canal Zone was abolished, effective March 31, 1982, as part of the process of returning the Canal Zone to Panama. Cases then pending in the Canal Zone court were transferred to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans.
- Between 1906 and 1943, there existed a United States Court for China that functioned as a district court with jurisdiction over American citizens in China.
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