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US Constitution – Authority for State and Federal Courts

What is the authority for the federal and state judicial systems in the United States?

The authority for the federal and state judicial systems is found in the US and state Constitutions. Below is a breakdown of the courts as authorized under Articles I, II, and III of the US Constitution. State constitutions are modeled after the US Constitution and generally establish a similar state-court structure.

Article I – Article I of the Constitution creates the legislative branch of the Federal Government. Pursuant to the authorization of Article I, Congress has the authority to create inferior courts under the US Supreme Court. Also, Congress has the authority to create legislative courts and a limited ability to delegate law-making authority to other branches. The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress has the latitude to delegate regulatory powers to executive agencies as long as it provides an “intelligible principle” to govern the agency’s exercise of the delegated authority. As such, Congress delegates to the administrative agencies the responsibility for formulating regulations to effectuate and expand upon the statutes passed by Congress. These agencies, under the supervision of the executive branch, establish administrative courts to adjudicate disputes arising pursuant to agency regulations.

Discussion: How do you feel about Congress’ ability to delegate law-making authority? Have you ever thought about who drafts regulations surrounding a statute?

Practice Question: Congress passes a federal act easing the restrictions on the sale of securities by private companies. Congress outlines the specific purposes of the Act, but fails to provide any procedural mechanisms for carrying out its function. Congress, in the Act, direct the Securities and Exchange Commission (an Independent Federal Agency), to create regulations sufficient to carry out the statutory provisions. Where does Congress receive the authority to make this delegation and what statutory level of guidance is required to make this delegation constitutional?

Note: Examples of legislative and administrative courts include: D.C. judiciary, D.C. Court of Appeals, D.C. Superior Court, US Court of Appeals for Armed Forces, (Several Military courts of Appeal), US Court of Appeals for Military Claims, Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals, Civilian Board of Contract Appeals, Board of Immigration Appeals, US Immigration Courts, Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, US Postal Service Board of Contract Appeals, US Court of Federal Claims, US Tax Court, US Bankruptcy Courts, Social Security Administration Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, US Merit Systems Protection Board, Board of Veterans’ Appeals, US Courts-Martial, Guantanamo Military Commissions, and US Court of Military Commission Review.

Practice Question: Lawrence, a member of the US Army, is charged with deserting his unit at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He is later apprehended by state police and extradited back to military control. The military decides to bring charges against him for the crime of desertion under the military code of justice. What is the authority for bringing criminal charges against Lawrence and who oversees the process?


Article II Authority – Article II of the Constitution establishes the executive branch. It grants the President authority to preside over certain administrative agencies and legislative courts created by Congress. Many administrative agencies create special courts for the adjudication of disputes arising under its jurisdiction or within its regulatory authority. These administrative courts are known as “Article I courts” based upon their authorization. Legislative courts are courts of special jurisdiction created by Congress to hear special matters.

Example: Article I courts include bankruptcy, military, tax, and immigration courts. Appeals from these special courts go to Article III courts.

Discussion: How do you feel about administrative agencies establishing their own courts? How do you feel about the Executive branch overseeing administrative courts? Does the ability to appeal administrative decisions to an Article III court provide sufficient check on the executive branch’s authority?

Practice Question: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is an executive agency under the purview of the President of the United States. John receives a letter from the IRS explaining that he has income tax liability far beyond what John believes is accurate. After disputing the IRS’s tax assessment, John decides to bring a legal action in the United States Tax Court challenging the tax amount. What is the authority of the US Tax Court and does it have authority to hear the matter of John’s tax assessment?

What is the authority for Article III federal courts?

Article III Federal Courts

US Supreme Court – Article III of the Constitution establishes the US Supreme Court as the highest court in the land. It has “original jurisdiction” over certain matters but serves almost entirely as an appellate court. It provides appellate review of the decisions of the highest state court and decisions from all federal appellate courts.

Federal Appellate Courts – These courts serve as the appellate courts for matters decided by judge or jury in the District Court. There are 13 federal appellate courts consisting of 11 enumerated US Circuit Courts of Appeal, the District of Columbia Circuit, and the Federal Circuit.

Ancillary Federal Courts – These are Article III federal courts with special authority and vested with specific jurisdiction by Congress. These ancillary courts include: US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review; US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; US Court of International Trade, US Alien Terrorist Removal Court.

District Courts – These are the Article III trial courts for the federal system. There are approximately 94 district courts spread throughout the United States. They do not follow state boundaries; rather, they are positioned within pre-established federal jurisdictions. There are also courts of limited jurisdiction, known as federal magistrate courts, which exist in support of the federal district courts.

Discussion: Why do you think that there are such fewer federal trial and appellate courts than in the state court systems? How many cases does the US Supreme Court hear in a year? Does this number surprise you? Why or why not? What do you think is the reasoning behind the creation of special ancillary courts?

Practice Question: Meredith is involved in a civil trial in the US District Court located in the state of Maryland. At the conclusion of the trial, she appeals the court’s decision to the appropriate appellate court. Which Circuit Court of Appeals would be charged with reviewing Meredith’s request for an appeal?

Article III Authority – “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.” The US Supreme Court is the only court specifically established by the Constitution. Congress has created several subordinate courts below the Supreme Court, which include the Federal District Courts, Federal Circuit Courts, and numerous ancillary courts that have special jurisdiction. Pursuant to Articles I and II, all members of Article III courts and tribunals are appointed by the President and are confirmed by vote of the Senate.

Discussion: Can you think of any reasons why Congress decided to create numerous courts that are subordinate to the Supreme Court? How do you feel about the right of the President to nominate judges? How do you feel about the requirement that the Senate approve judicial nominees? Can you recall any instances where the Senate has refused to confirm a Presidential nominee to a federal court?

Practice Question: At the end of the year, it is expected that there will be approximately 150 federal judgeships open. The President of the United States has assembled a list of nominees for the positions. His list is very well planned and all of the candidates have the appropriate credentials for the position. Can the President rest assured that all of his nominees will receive the nominated judicial position?

Article IV – Article IV courts are US Territorial Courts, such as those of Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands, established under the Territory Clause of Article IV.

Discussion: Think about the formation of courts in these jurisdictions. These are not states and, therefore, Congress must act to establish courts with jurisdiction over these protectorates. How do you feel about territories of the United States that are not represented in the Federal Government, but are subject to federal jurisdiction?

Practice Question: In the US Territory of Guam, Hanna is the victim of a crime when someone steals her automobile. What laws would be affected in this scenario and how would this situation differ from a similar occurrence in California?

Article IV Courts Authority

These are territorial courts specially created to act as the court of general jurisdiction in select federal jurisdictions. These courts have jurisdictions similar to that of a federal district court; however, they also exercise subject-matter jurisdiction over matters typically reserved to state and local courts in a jurisdiction. These courts are designated to a specific circuit court of appeals for all appeals from the trial court.

Example: With regard to appellate matters, the Virgin Islands district court falls under the 3rd Judicial Circuit Court of Appeals, while the district courts of Guam and the Mariana Islands fall under the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Discussion: State governments generally create laws pursuant to its police power. The Federal Government generally creates laws pursuant to the Commerce Clause or Taxing and Spending Power under the US Constitution. How do you feel about the creation of federal courts to hear matters traditionally controlled under state law?

Constitutional Authority for State Court System

• The US Constitution, pursuant to the 10th Amendment, provides for both federal and state governments. While the US Constitution provides the authority for federal courts, a state’s constitution provides the authority for state courts. Generally, state constitutions follow a model that is very similar to that of the US Constitution and allow for judicial, legislative, and administrative courts.

Discussion: Why do you think state constitutions follow a structure that closely resembles that of the US Constitution? Is there any requirement for state judiciaries to function similarly to federal courts?

What types of courts exist in the state judicial system?

State governments establish courts pursuant to Articles III and I of their respective state constitutions. The general structure for the state court system is outlined below.

Article III State Courts

Supreme Court – The State Supreme Court is generally the highest court in a state. In some states there is a different naming convention. In New York, for example, the highest court is the Court of Appeals. Nonetheless, the purpose of the highest state court is the same across all states. They review cases generally to ensure the correct or appropriate application of law – in accordance with the state’s constitution. Cases generally go before the Supreme Court via a Writ of Certiorari or pursuant to request for appeal by a losing party. This process is similar to that of the federal system. Some state cases have automatic appeal rights to the state Supreme Court. This is the case for all capital murder cases.

Appellate Court – Many state judicial systems have an intermediate court of review. Not every state is big enough to have an intermediate appeals court. As such, appeals must go directly to the State Supreme Court. The function of the intermediate state court of appeals is similar to that of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. It reviews the decisions of lower courts based on their interpretation and application of law to the facts of the case – as present in the record of trial.

Superior Court – This is generally the naming convention for the highest level of trial court in the state. That is, the superior trial court is the court with general jurisdiction empowered by the state constitution to hear any matter of state law. It is the trial court for the most serious offenses (criminal and civil). It will hear any cases falling outside of the jurisdiction of subordinate trial courts. These courts generally employ juries as triers of fact.

Intermediate Trial Court – Nearly all states have an intermediate trial court that has limited jurisdiction over certain types of cases. This court will generally hear criminal cases involving charges that have a specified limit in the potential sentence if found guilty. Further, it will generally hear civil lawsuits that have a specific limit in the dollar amount in dispute or in controversy. These courts often have special limitations, such as no right to jury trial and special court rules. The geographic jurisdiction of the court is generally broken down by county or district.

Courts of Limited or Special Jurisdiction – Most states designate special courts to hear cases of a particular subject matter. This frees up the intermediate and superior trial courts to focus on criminal and civil trials that meet their jurisdictional requirements. Common examples of courts of limited jurisdiction include:

Municipal Court – Municipal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction to handle local ordinance violations. The geographic jurisdiction is generally limited to within the city or town limits.

Example: Common municipal court cases include citations (tickets) based on speeding or noise violations.

Magistrate Court (“Small Claims Court”) – This is a special court of limited jurisdiction to empowered to hear minor criminal offenses and small civil disputes. Magistrate court is important for small businesses. It handles much of the litigation between businesses and customers that falls within a jurisdictional limit (commonly $10-20K or less). The benefits of the magistrate court are that it generally has very informal court procedures and low court costs.

Probate Courts – Probate courts handle matters involving death and estate administration. Specifically, the word probate signifies the process of administering an individual’s estate. The court may also hear matters of child welfare and related family matters, such as guardianship, adoption, etc.

Family Courts – Some states have a designated court to handle family law matters. The primary subject-matter jurisdiction for these courts includes divorce, annulments, and spousal and child support disputes.

Courts of Equity – Some states designate special equity courts that operate based on principles of fairness. These courts apply “equitable maxims”, rather than statutes, to reach a fair and just result. Most states have unified courts of law and equity and do not designate stand-alone courts of equity. Equity courts often hear civil disputes that do not involve the commission of a tort (such a mortgage default). They may act as a special form of mediator to certain disputes between individuals and businesses.

Example: States that have courts of equity include: Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Business Courts – States increasingly create a separate court or docket within the trial system to hear business law matters. These courts recognize the need to employ judges who are subject-matter experts in business principles.

Article I State Courts

All state constitutions allow for administrative state agencies to handle regulatory issues between citizens and the state government. These courts are structurally and operationally similar in nature to federal administrative courts. They fall under the state executive branch’s authority. Examples of state administrative courts include: revenue (taxation), licensing, disability, employment, etc.

Discussion: How do you feel about state’s developing such extensive courts of special jurisdiction? Do these special courts provide any advantages or disadvantages for parties appearing before them?

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