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DANA B. TASCHNER

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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 both law and equity. There is a United States bankruptcy court in each U.S. district court. There is at least one courthouse in each federal judicial district, and some large districts have more than one. The formal name of a district court is, for example, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

All United States district courts are named in the format "United States District Court for the XXXX District of XXXX," with the exception of the United States District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands.

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 jurisdiction over most of those types of cases, and the district court is the only one with jurisdiction over criminal cases and the only one where a trial can be to a jury instead of just a judge. The Court of International Trade addresses cases involving international trade and customs issues. The United States Court of Federal Claims has 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 assessments of taxes.

U.S. district court judges

The number of judges in each district court (and the structure of the judicial system generally) is set by Congress. The President appoints all judges (subject to the approval of the Senate), so the nominees often belong to the same political party as the President, or 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 obnoxious to the senator.

As Article III judges, federal district judges are 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 U.S. House of Representatives followed by a trial in the U.S. Senate, which requires a two-thirds vote to convict. Otherwise, a judge, even if he is convicted of a felony criminal offense by a jury, is entitled to hold office until he (or she) dies or retires.

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 Jane Doe" or "Hon. 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 have been offloaded to magistrate judges.

Federal magistrates are not Article III judges with guaranteed lifetime employment. Rather, they are hired and supervised by district judges like any other court employee, and they can be fired at any time for any rational reason (for example, if Congress cuts the judiciary's budget). Occasionally a capable magistrate will be nominated by the President to become a district judge, but magistrate is just one of the possible "stepping stones" to such an appointment.

Jurisdiction

To file a civil case (that is, "sue someone") in federal district court, a person must have a reason why a federal court, instead of a state court, should adjudicate the dispute. By law, the bases for federal jurisdiction (the power to hear and decide a case) are:

  • United States as a plaintiff;
  • United States (or in certain cases a federal officer or employee) as a defendant;
  • "Federal question jurisdiction," which means the complaint is based on a federal law (which may be the Constitution or a statute);
  • " Admiralty" or "maritime" jurisidiction, which, very generally, applies to and governs disputes which arise out of acts occurring at sea or in other "navigable waters" within the United States.
  • " Diversity of citizenship," which means the plaintiff, or person suing, and defendant (person being sued) live in different states and the " amount in controversy" is more than the statutory minimum, which is currently $75,000.00; and
  • "Alienage", which is a variant of diversity of citizenship, wherein one party is a US citizen and the other is a foreign national who does not reside in any state - alien residents of the U.S. are treated as citizens for purposes of diversity and alienage jurisdiction - and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.00.

Thus, not every legal dispute can be litigated in federal court, hence the expression "make a federal case out of it."

Federal district courts often decide claims based on state law. Sometimes this is because only state law claims were pleaded and the only basis for federal jurisdiction is diversity of citizenship or alienage. Other times, even though there is a federal question in the case, the plaintiff has also pleaded state law claims as well, which the federal courts have the discretion to hear through supplemental jurisdiction. Either way, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that in such situations, the district courts must resolve state law claims by applying the law of the state in which they sit. They cannot make up and apply general federal common law (which was the old rule).

Although in matters of civil law there are often parallel federal and state laws, providing an aggrieved party with a choice of venue, there are some matters which may only be adjudicated in the Federal courts; these include most intellectual property questions and matters related to international relations. 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 Amendement. 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 in a United States Supreme Court case, Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999).

District courts also have limited jurisdiction as an appellate court, reviewing decisions of the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board and of United States bankruptcy courts.

Attorneys

In order to serve as counsel in a case filed in a district court the attorney must be admitted to the bar of that court. The United States does not have a separate bar examination for federal practice (except with respect to patent law). 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. The attorney submits his application with a nominal 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.

Appeals

A formal 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 that court is in.

Busiest district courts

Not surprisingly, the busiest and largest district courts are the ones that serve the three largest cities in the United States: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Respectively, they are the district courts for the Southern District of New York, the Central District of California, and the Northern District of Illinois.

Together, these three courts have the most judges, personnel, and facilities, and publish a large portion of the opinions reported in the Federal Supplement.

The CDCA is the largest federal district by population, since it encompasses practically all of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, while a large portion of the New York metropolitan area is covered by district courts in New Jersey and Connecticut.


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