Federal Courts in American Government

The three branches of the federal government — legislative, executive, and judicial — operate within a constitutional system known as "checks and balances." This means that although each branch is formally separate from the other two, the Constitution often requires cooperation among the branches. Federal laws, for example, are passed by Congress and signed by the President. The judicial branch, in turn, has the authority to decide the constitutionality of federal laws and resolve other disputes over them, but judges depend upon the executive branch to enforce court decisions.

Federal Courts & Congress
The Constitution gives Congress the power to create federal courts other than the Supreme Court and to determine their jurisdiction. It is Congress, not the judiciary, that controls the type of cases that may be addressed in the federal courts.

Congress has three other basic responsibilities that determine how the courts will operate. First, it decides how many judges there should be and where they will work. Second, through the confirmation process, Congress determines which of the President's judicial nominees ultimately become federal judges. Third, Congress approves the federal courts' budget and appropriates money for the judiciary to operate. The judiciary's budget is a very small part — substantially less than one percent — of the entire federal budget.

Federal Courts & the Executive Branch
Under the Constitution, the President appoints federal judges with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. The President usually consults senators or other elected officials concerning candidates for vacancies on the federal courts. The President's power to appoint new federal judges is not the judiciary's only interaction with the executive branch. The Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting federal crimes and for representing the government in civil cases, is the most frequent litigator in the federal court system. Several other executive branch agencies affect the operations of the courts. The United States Marshals Service, for example, provides security for federal courthouses and judges, and the General Services Administration builds and maintains federal courthouses.

Defender Services

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees an accused the right to representation by counsel in serious criminal prosecutions. The responsibility for appointing counsel in federal criminal proceedings for those unable to bear the cost of representation has historically rested in the federal judiciary. Before the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), however, there was no authority to compensate appointed counsel for their services or litigation expenses, and federal judges depended on the professional obligation of lawyers to provide pro bono publico representation to defendants unable to retain counsel.

In 1964, the CJA was enacted to establish a comprehensive system for appointing and compensating lawyers to represent defendants financially unable to retain counsel in federal criminal proceedings. The CJA authorized reimbursement of reasonable out-of-pocket expenses and payment of expert and investigative services necessary for an adequate defense. While it provided for some compensation for appointed counsel (CJA panel attorneys), it did so at rates substantially below that which they would receive from their privately-retained clients.

In 1970, the CJA was amended to authorize districts to establish federal defender organizations as counterparts to federal prosecutors in U.S. Attorneys Offices and an institutional resource for providing defense counsel in those districts (or combinations of adjacent districts) where at least 200 persons annually require appointment of counsel.

Today, more than forty-five years since the CJA was enacted, there are 80 authorized federal defender organizations. They employ more than 3,300 lawyers, investigators, paralegals, and support personnel and serve 90 of the 94 federal judicial districts. There are two types of federal defender organizations: federal defender organizations and community defender organizations.

Federal Defender Organizations
Federal defender organizations are federal entities, and their staffs are federal employees. The chief federal defender is appointed to a four-year term by the court of appeals of the circuit in which the organization is located. The Congress placed this appointment authority in the court of appeals rather than the district court in order to insulate, as best as possible, the federal defender from the involvement of the court before which the defender principally practices.

Community Defender Organizations
Community defender organizations are non-profit defense counsel organizations incorporated under state laws. When designated in the CJA plan for the district in which they operate, community defender organizations receive initial and sustaining grants from the federal judiciary to fund their operations. Community defender organizations operate under the supervision of a board of directors and may be a branch or division of a parent non-profit legal services corporation that provides representation to the poor in state, county, and municipal courts.

Federal defender organizations, together with the more than 10,000 private "panel attorneys" who accept CJA assignments annually, represent the vast majority of individuals who are prosecuted in our nation's federal courts. CJA panel attorneys accept appointments in all CJA cases in the four districts not served by a federal defender organization. In those districts with a defender organization, panel attorneys are typically assigned between 30 percent and 40 percent of the CJA cases, generally those where a conflict of interest or some other factor precludes federal defender representation. Nationwide, federal defenders receive approximately 60 percent of CJA appointments, and the remaining 40 percent are assigned to the CJA panel.

Federal Courts & The Public

With certain very limited exceptions, each step of the federal judicial process is open to the public. Many federal courthouses are historic buildings, and all are designed to inspire in the public a respect for the tradition and purpose of the American judicial process.

An individual citizen who wishes to observe a court in session may go to the federal courthouse, check the court calendar, and watch a proceeding. Anyone may review the pleadings and other papers in a case by going to the clerk of court's office and asking for the appropriate case file. Unlike most of the state courts, however, the federal courts generally do not permit television or radio coverage of trial court proceedings.

Court dockets and some case files are available on the Internet through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (known as PACER), at www.pacer.gov. In addition, nearly every federal court maintains a web site with information about court rules and procedures.

The right of public access to court proceedings is partly derived from the Constitution and partly from court tradition. By conducting their judicial work in public view, judges enhance public confidence in the courts, and they allow citizens to learn first-hand how our judicial system works.

In a few situations the public may not have full access to court records and court proceedings. In a high-profile trial, for example, there may not be enough space in the courtroom to accommodate everyone who would like to observe. Access to the courtroom also may be restricted for security or privacy reasons, such as the protection of a juvenile or a confidential informant. Finally, certain documents may be placed under seal by the judge, meaning that they are not available to the public. Examples of sealed information include confidential business records, certain law enforcement reports, and juvenile records.

Federal Courts' Structure

District (Trial) Courts
The United States district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Each district includes a United States bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court. Three territories of the United States — the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands — have district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases.

Appellate Courts
The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. A court of appeals hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

The Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal Judiciary. Congress has established two levels of federal courts under the Supreme Court: the trial courts and the appellate courts.

The United States Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices. At its discretion, and within certain guidelines established by Congress, the Supreme Court each year hears a limited number of the cases it is asked to decide. Those cases may begin in the federal or state courts, and they usually involve important questions about the Constitution or federal law.