U.S. Courts Design Guide
Types of Federal Courts
Article III of the Constitution provides for a Supreme Court and whatever other
federal courts Congress considers necessary. The number of federal judges is small.
While the Supreme Court and its justices are located in Washington, D.C., most
members of the federal judiciary are dispersed throughout the United States.
Trial Courts. Congress divided the country into 94 federal judicial districts, each with
its own USDC. The USDCs are the federal trial courts, where cases are tried,
witnesses testify, and juries serve.
In the federal trial courts, broadest judicial responsibility is given to USDC judges.
USDC judges conduct a wide range of judicial proceedings including hearings, bench
trials, and jury trials. Proceedings occur in both civil and criminal cases. Only district
judges are authorized to conduct major criminal trials.
There are currently 649 authorized USDC judgeships. Typically, one to five district
judges are located in small- to medium-sized court facilities; however, in several large
metropolitan areas, as many as 15 to 20 district judges are located in a single facility.
Generally, one trial courtroom is required for each district judgeship.
Bankruptcy and magistrate judges assist district judges by conducting some of the
proceedings in the federal trial courts. Both are appointed by USCA and USDC
judges and serve for a set number of years.
Magistrate judges exercise jurisdiction in a narrower range of cases than USDC
judges, as determined by statute and a delegation of authority from USDC judges.
Magistrate judges hear preliminary matters in criminal cases and try minor criminal
cases. Under certain circumstances, magistrate judges may conduct the full range of
proceedings in civil cases, up to and including jury trials. U.S. Bankruptcy Court
(USBC) judges have authority under federal bankruptcy law to act over all matters
involving debtor-creditor relationships. USBC judges conduct a variety of civil
hearings, and, in very limited circumstances, may conduct civil jury trials.
Courts of Appeal. Congress grouped the 94 USDCs into 12 regional circuits, and
established within each circuit a single USCA. Litigants who lose in the USDC may
appeal their case to the USCA, which reviews cases to see whether the trial judge
applied the law correctly. The USCA also reviews cases decided by the tax court and
various federal agencies, such as the National Labor Relations Board. The USCA is
the final stop for most litigation in the federal system. There are currently 167 USCA
judges authorized for the 12 regional circuits. Typically, one to five appellate judges
are located in a few cities in the various circuits. Occasionally, up to 11 judges are
housed in a single location. Only one headquarters courtroom (en banc courtroom)
exists within each circuit. One or more auxiliary, or panel, courtroom(s) might be