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America's Court System

Federal Court

The jurisdiction of the federal courts is defined in Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution, as extending in law and equity to all cases arising under the Constitution and federal legislation; to controversies to which the U.S. shall be a party, including those arising from treaties with other governments; to admiralty and maritime cases; to controversies between states; to controversies between a state, or its citizens, and foreign governments or their subjects; and to controversies between the citizens of one state and citizens of another state. The federal courts were also originally invested with jurisdiction over controversies between citizens of one state and the government of another state; the 11th Amendment (ratified February 7, 1795), however, removed from federal jurisdiction those cases in which the citizens of one state were plaintiffs and the government of another state was the defendant. The amendment did not disturb the jurisdiction of the federal courts in cases in which a state government is a plaintiff and a citizen of another state, the defendant. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction in patent and copyright cases; and by congressional enactment in 1898, federal courts were vested with original jurisdiction in bankruptcy cases.

The courts established under the powers granted by Article III, Sections 1 and 2, of the Constitution are known as constitutional courts. Judges of constitutional courts are appointed for life by the president with the approval of the Senate. These courts are the district courts, tribunals of general original jurisdiction; the courts of appeals (before 1948, circuit courts of appeals), exercising appellate jurisdiction over the district courts; and the Supreme Court. A district court functions in each of the more than 90 federal judicial districts and in the District of Columbia. A court of appeals functions in each of the 11 federal judicial circuits and in the District of Columbia; there is also a more specialized court with nationwide jurisdiction known as the court of appeals for the federal circuit. The federal district court and the court of appeals of the District of Columbia perform functions discharged in the states by state courts. All lower federal courts operate under uniform rules of procedure promulgated by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is the highest appellate tribunal in the country and is a court of original jurisdiction according to the Constitution “in all cases affecting Ambassadors, other public ministers and Consuls, and those in which a...

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