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Federal Powers and Separation of Powers

Judicial Department

The Articles of Confederation had not created a national judiciary. Instead, state courts heard cases involving federal law, resulting in inconsistency and confusion. The framers rectified this by vesting federal judicial power in the Supreme Court and "such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." By statute Congress has created a three-tiered judicial system with district courts at the bottom, courts of appeal in the middle, and the Supreme Court at the top. There are eleven courts of appeal corresponding to eleven geographical regions, each of which contains a number of judicial districts. Cases generally are tried in the district courts, appealed to the courts of appeal, and then appealed to the Supreme Court as a last resort. Only cases involving ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state is a party may be brought directly before the Supreme Court without going through a district court or court of appeals.

The Constitution specifically enumerates the types of cases that may come before the federal courts. First and foremost are cases arising under the Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties. The federal courts also may hear cases of maritime and admiralty jurisdiction, which means cases arising on the navigable waters of the United States. Federal judicial power also extends to cases in which the United States is a party and cases between two or more states, between a state and citizens of a different state, and between citizens of different states.

Federal courts generally determine guilt or innocence in criminal or civil cases. Criminal cases involve enforcement of the criminal laws. Civil cases involve disputes between private parties. In addition, the courts have authority to issue writs of habeas corpus, a power the Constitution specifically prohibits Congress from taking away. The courts also may issue writs of mandamus, which force government officials to carry out their public duty. The courts also issue arrest and search warrants in accordance with the Fourth Amendment. An important constitutional limitation on all of these powers is that the federal courts may act only in actual cases or controversies. This means they may not issue opinions in the absence of an actual legal dispute.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesFederal Powers and Separation of Powers - Preamble, The Tyranny Of The Monarchy, The Articles Of Confederation, Constitution Of The United States