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Guide to the Federal Judicial System

The Federal Court System

A. Structure. The design of the United States court system has varied a great deal throughout the history of our country. The Constitution merely provides: "The Judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

Thus, the only indispensable court is the Supreme Court. Congress, from time to time, has established and abolished various other United States courts.

At the present time, the United States court system may be likened to a pyramid. As shown by a diagram in this section of the guide, the Supreme Court of the United States rests at the top of the pyramid. On the next level stand the United States courts of appeals in 12 circuits and the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

On the next level stand the United States district courts, 94 in all, including the United States District Courts for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and the district courts in Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands, along with the United States Court of International Trade and the United States Claims Court. The United States Tax Court and, in a sense, certain administrative agencies may be included here because the review of their decisions may be directly in the courts of appeals. Some agency reviews, however, are handled by the district courts.

A person involved in a suit in a United States court may thus proceed through three levels of decision. A case will be heard and decided by one of the courts or agencies on the lower level. If either party is dissatisfied with the decision rendered, he or she may usually have review of right in one of the courts of appeals. Then, if the party is still dissatisfied, but usually only if the case involves a matter of great national importance, he or she may obtain review in the Supreme Court of the United States.

This pyramidal organization of the courts serves two purposes. First, the courts of appeals can correct errors that have been made in the decisions in the trial courts. Secondly, the Supreme Court can assure uniformity of decision by reviewing cases in which Constitutional issues have been decided, or two or more lower courts have reached different results.

B. The Supreme Court. The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United States. It consists of nine Justices appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the United States Senate. One Justice is designated by the President to act as Chief Justice. All Justices are appointed for life.
The court convenes on the first Monday of October each year. It continues in session usually through June and receives and disposes of about 5,000 cases annually. Most of these cases are disposed of by the brief decision that the subject matter is either not proper or not of sufficient importance to warrant full Court review. But each year between 150 and 200 cases of great importance and interest are decided on the merits. About three-fourths of these decisions are announced in full published opinions.

C. Courts of Appeals. The intermediate appellate courts in the United States Judicial System are the courts of appeals for the federal circuit with national jurisdiction.

Each circuit includes three or more states, except the District of Columbia Circuit and the Federal Circuit. The states of Alaska and Hawaii, and the territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are included in the Ninth Circuit. Puerto Rico is included in the First Circuit and the Virgin Islands are included in the Third Circuit.

Each court of appeals consists of between 6 and 28 circuit judges, depending upon the amount of work in the circuit. The chief judge is the judge with longest service but less than 70 years of age, who has not previously served as chief judge and had not reached his or her 65th birthday at the time he or she became chief judge. Each circuit judge is appointed for life.

The 12 regional United States courts of appeals currently receive about 40,000 cases every year. A disappointed suitor in a district court usually has a right to have the decision of his case reviewed by the court of appeals of his circuit. In addition to appeals from the district courts, the courts of appeals receive many cases to review actions of the Tax Court and various federal administrative agencies for errors of law.

Cases from the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri are appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. As indicated by a map in this section of the guide, the Eighth Circuit encompasses the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. As of September 1991, there were 10 active and five senior judges sitting in the Eighth Circuit. The court is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo.

D. District Courts. The United States courts where cases initially are tried and decided are the district courts. There are 94 of these courts, including 89 in the 50 states and one each in the district of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The district courts in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, like those in the 50 states, are established under Article III of the Constitution and have judges appointed for life, whereas the district courts in the three territories are legislative courts having judges who serve 10-year terms.

Each state has at least one district court, but many states, including Missouri, have two or more districts. A district itself may be divided into divisions and may have several places where the court hears cases. Each district has from two to 27 judges, depending upon the volume of cases that must be decided.

For each district, there is a clerk's office, a United States Marshal's Office, and one or more United States magistrate judges, probation officers and court reporters. In addition, there is a United States Attorney's Office in each district, as well as either a Federal Public Defender's Office or an active plan to provide legal services for poor defendants in criminal cases.

In districts having two or more judges, the chief judge is the judge with the longest service under 70 years of age who had not reached 65 years of age at the time of becoming chief judge. The chief judge serves a nonrenewable term of seven years. As in the courts of appeals, retired judges may be designated and assigned to continue to perform judicial duties. These judges are also known as senior judges.

Bankruptcy cases and certain related proceedings filed in the United States district courts may be referred to the bankruptcy judges for hearing and decision. Bankruptcy judges, appointed by the judges of the courts of appeals, serve 14-year terms.

E. The Western District of Missouri. The state of Missouri is divided into two districts: eastern and western. The Eastern District of Missouri includes 48 counties. In the Eastern District, the headquarters for the district court and the United States Attorney's office are located in St. Louis.

The Western District of Missouri includes 66 of Missouri's 114 counties, grouped into these five divisions:

The United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri has court facilities in Kansas City, Joplin, St. Joseph, Jefferson City and Springfield. However, the vast majority of the district's courtroom proceedings are conducted in Kansas City and Springfield. As of September 1991, there were six active and two senior district judges, four magistrates and three bankruptcy judges on the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

The United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri is headquartered in Kansas City, with a fully-staffed branch office in Springfield.