federal judiciary

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Federal judiciary is the judiciary of the federal government. Article III of the U.S. Constitution establishes the federal judiciary, which consists of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts that Congress created. The scope of the federal judicial power only extends to cases arising under the Constitution and the laws of the United States, as opposed to State judiciaries which exercise general jurisdiction; see federalism.

While the Constitution establishes the Judicial Branch, it delegates to Congress the authority to structure the court system. Congress established the lower federal courts with the Judiciary Act of 1789 . The lower courts are broken into two levels: the District Courts and the Courts of Appeals. The District Courts are the trial courts of the federal judiciary. The Courts of Appeals hear appeals from the decisions of the District Courts. There are 94 District Courts and 13 Courts of Appeals.

Under Article III, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors, public officials, and individual states, and  appellate jurisdiction in all other cases. The Supreme Court has certiorari power, which is the power to choose its own cases. The Court usually chooses to hear cases involving significant legal issues that have not been uniformly decided by the lower courts. The Supreme Court does not issue advisory opinions, so a claimant must have proper standing to bring a suit.

Federal District Courts and Courts of Appeal are not courts of general jurisdiction, and only hear cases under federal subject-matter jurisdiction, including diversity jurisdiction and supplemental jurisdiction

While the Constitution provides for a Supreme Court made of justices nominated by the President and affirmed by the Senate, it does not specify the number, title, or responsibilities of Supreme Court justices. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established a Chief Justice and multiple associate justices. The number of justices has fluctuated throughout the years, however. There are currently nine Supreme Court justices. 

Federal judges in both District Courts and Courts of Appeal are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They have life tenure, which allows them to make impartial decisions without being unduly affected by public opinion. However, under Article III of the Constitution, a judge who does not display good behavior can be removed from office by impeachment in the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate.

For more information on the U.S. federal court system, see Court Role and Structure

[Last updated in December of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]