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The Law and Federal, State, and Local Courts, The Federal Courts
Patent Court, federal judicial system, federal judiciary, appeals courts, Circuit Courts of Appeal
Today the federal judiciary is based on a three-tiered hierarchy of courts. On the bottom are the 94 U.S. District Courts in the 50 states and the U.S. dependent territories. These courts have jurisdiction to hear only those cases allowed under the Constitution and by federal law. These include cases where crimes have been committed that violate federal laws, and disputes between citizens of different states. The next tier above the district courts contains the 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal. These courts can hear only cases where the ruling of a district court has been appealed (contested) by one of the parties involved. The circuit courts, like other appeals courts, cannot question the facts of a case, they can consider only questions of law and legal interpretation. The top of the pyramid is the United States Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the country. Rulings of the circuit courts may be appealed to the Supreme Court, but in practice the court hears only cases of important constitutional significance. Congress is responsible for creating and maintaining the federal courts.
Federal judges serve for life, although they can be removed by congressional impeachment. These lifetime appointments insulate the federal judiciary—especially the Supreme Court—from the whims of popular opinion, which can influence the legislative and executive branches. On the other hand, because its members are not popularly elected, the federal judiciary is less accountable to the people than are the other two branches of government. In this way, the life tenure of federal judges epitomizes a tension between a democracy of the people and a powerful institution that is not directly accountable to the people. This tension is significant because judicial rulings determine the scope and meaning of the law. Thus, in a very real sense, the courts do make laws. Court rulings, for example, have been responsible for limiting industrial monopolies, determining the pace of racial integration, and protecting individuals from the abuses of government. Some people have criticized the fact that federal judges can issue such far-reaching rulings without fear of being voted out of office.
In addition to the district, appeals, and Supreme courts, the federal judicial system includes various courts with jurisdiction over specialized cases. For example, the Tax Court handles cases that arise out of enforcing the tax code, and the Claims Court considers disputes about property taken for public use. A Customs Court handles complicated issues arising from seizures of and taxes on imported goods, while the Patent Court, also with a specialized jurisdiction, deals with controversies about registering patents. The Court of Veterans Appeals reviews decisions regarding veterans benefits made by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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