District Courts: The Federal Trial Courts

Introduction

You may have heard of famous Supreme Court cases, such as the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that permitted racial segregation in public facilities. Brown and other Supreme Court cases, however, did not begin in the Supreme Court. Rather, they were first heard in lower courts called district courts.

Explanation

The federal court system is divided into three main levels: district or trial courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court. Usually, a federal case is first heard in a district court.

District Courts

District courts are the general trial courts of the federal court system. There are 94 district courts in the U.S., and they try both civil and criminal cases. They are responsible for applying legal principles to a case to decide which side of the case is correct. 

How They Work

The United States has both a state and federal court system. The two systems have different jurisdictions, meaning they are allowed to hear different types of cases. Federal courts mainly have jurisdiction in cases that deal with the Constitution, laws or treaties of the U.S., and ambassadors and public ministers, as well as in cases that involve two or more states. State courts, on the other hand, are more likely to hear criminal cases and cases involving contracts, wills and estates, and family disputes. 

Often, the jurisdiction of a federal district court overlaps with the jurisdiction of the corresponding state court. A plaintiff can choose to bring her case in either court, but a defendant can “remove” the case from state to federal court. If the plaintiff thinks the removal was improper, she can ask the district court to “remand” the case back to the state court. 

District courts are the lowest level of the federal court system. They are trial courts, meaning they hear a case for the first time and decide how the law should be applied. Most of the time, they have a judge and a jury, and they can hear both civil and criminal cases. 

For example, in a criminal case, a district court decides whether or not the accused is guilty of a crime. District court judges decide what evidence is admissible into court, what the scope of a search warrant is, whether an arrest was legal, and other issues involving the law. Usually, the jury then decides whether or not the defendant is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. 

Sometimes, though, there is no jury, and the judge also decides whether or not the defendant is guilty. This is called a bench trial. Defendants may have a bench trial instead of a jury trial for multiple reasons, including if the judge indicates before the trial that she will not give any jail time. 

If either side disagrees with the ruling of the district court, they can appeal to the circuit courts, which are charged with deciding whether the law was applied correctly in the district court. If the plaintiffs or defendants disagree with the circuit court ruling, they can appeal to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country. 

District courts were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789. There are 94 district courts and over 670 district court judges in the U.S. District court judges serve life terms and are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They can be impeached by the House in the event of improper conduct. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. Magistrates are selected by district judges and serve eight or four-year terms for which they can be reappointed. They might oversee trials of misdemeanor cases, issue search and arrest warrants, set bail, oversee initial hearings, and handle pre-trial motions.

So What?

District courts are the foundation of our justice system. It is in these courts that judges and juries deliberate cases and proclaim individuals innocent or guilty. Additionally, many Supreme Court cases, including Brown v. Board, originated in district courts. Brown overturned legalized segregation in schools and was a major victory for the civil rights movement. Like Brown, many cases arising in district court have helped shape our country. 

Think Further

  1. Why might someone want their case to be heard in federal court instead of state court, and vice versa?
  2. Why is it important to have appeals courts that individuals can turn to if they don’t believe justice was upheld in district courts?
  3. Why do you think district court judges serve life sentences? Do you agree that they should serve for life? 

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Learn More

  1. “About U.S. Federal Courts.” Federal Bar Association, Federal Bar Association, www.fedbar.org/for-the-public/about-u-s-federal-courts/.
  2. “Court Role and Structure.” United States Courts, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/court-role-and-structure.
  3. “Federal District Courts.” Southeast ADA Center, adacourse.org/courtconcepts/district.html.
  4. “Introduction To The Federal Court System.” The United States Department of Justice, 17 Dec. 2014, www.justice.gov/usao/justice-101/federal-courts.