The United States Federal Judiciary: Its Structure and Jurisdiction

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Australia & New Zealand Journal of Law & Education


Constitution, Federal Courts, jurisdiction, Congress


Federal courts through their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution have had a profound effect on the development of law in the United States generally and education law specifically. In cases involving American public schools, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution has furnished legal definition for such seminal concepts as equal educational opportunities, 1 procedural due process, 2 and substantive due process. 3 The role that federal courts (and the Supreme Court in particular) should have in effecting changes in education reflects a longstanding debate in judicial circles as to whether the purpose of the judiciary is one of social activism or a more restrained function of strict construction of the Constitution. While the purpose of the this article is not to resolve this dispute, the views of judges regarding the role of the federal courts frequently become an issue at the time of their confirmation hearings and whether judges, once confirmed, choose to intervene in schools to superimpose constitutional guidelines on their management or whether, pursuant to the implied power of states to control education, choose to defer to the decisions of states and local school officials, the opinions of these judges will have long and lasting effects on the operation and management of schools. The U.S. federal judicial system follows the adversarial system inherited from England that relies upon attorneys during a trial to discover facts relevant to a dispute before a court. The primary functions of federal judges are limited to applying federal rules of civil and criminal procedure and resolving questions of substantive law. Despite the influence of the English judicial system on the federal judiciary though, the federal courts have never developed a common law. Common law, patterned on that of the English law, has been developed in almost all states and federal courts when called upon to address mixed federal and state issues in a case can apply the common law of that state to the state issues. The purpose of this article is to sketch the structure and jurisdiction of the federal courts in the U.S. Although only a broad outline of the federal courts, the author hopes that it will provide a useful introduction to a hierarchal system of courts that have had profound influence on American law. The federal judiciary as currently constituted in the United States did not spring full-blown in its current form, but rather, except where specifically designated in the Constitution, has been the product of two hundred years of congressional action. The relationship between Congress and the federal judiciary has involved over the years an interpretive tug of war over Congress’ interpretation of its powers under Article II of the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s

interpretation of what the Constitution permits.


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