Federal Courts

Federal courts are organized similarly to state courts.

U.S. district courts

The bottom level in the federal system is occupied by the 94 federal district courts, which are the trial courts. Every state has at least one, and larger states include more than one federal district. Over 300,000 civil and criminal cases were started in federal district courts in 1997, with criminal cases accounting for over 15 percent of the total. Since 1972, criminal case filings have increased because the number of drug cases has increased. Drugs, fraud, and immigration filings accounted for more than 60 percent of all criminal defendants in federal district courts in 1997.

U.S. courts of appeals

The next step up in the federal pyramid is the level of the circuit courts of appeals. Their function is twofold: handle appeals from federal district courts and reduce the U.S. Supreme Court's workload. Circuit courts, unlike district courts, are not one‐judge courts. Judges sit in three‐judge panels. If the case is important enough, it will be heard en banc, that is, by all the judges of a circuit. Circuit courts have a review function, concentrating on statutory interpretation and correction of errors in lower federal court cases. These courts lack discretionary control of cases—their dockets depend on the number and types of cases that are appealed. Each year these courts handle more than 40,000 civil and criminal cases. Criminal case appeals have increased dramatically because of the passage of federal sentencing guidelines and anticrime laws carrying mandatory‐minimum sentences. These legal reforms produce longer sentences, which give prisoners a greater incentive to appeal.

The U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court sits atop the pyramidal structure of the federal courts. It hears appeals that come out of federal courts as well as state courts. The Court has only nine justices, and its workload is heavy. The justices exercise certiorari power, meaning they decide which cases to review. Justices usually select cases that will have a broad national impact. Based on their review of a case, the Court justices either affirm or reverse a lower court's decision.

The policymaking role of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the most likely of all the courts to be involved in criminal justice policymaking. The Court makes policy in two ways. First, it can assert the power of judicial review. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Court struck down a law “repugnant to the Constitution” for the first time and set the precedent for judicial review of acts of Congress. Judicial review is the court's power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional and to review acts of state legislatures.

Second, the Court also can exert power as a maker of criminal justice policy through its authority to interpret the law. An example of the Court's taking this route to make policy can be found in the Warren Court's decisions in the area of due process. Under the leadership of chief justice Earl Warren, the Court issued a series of rulings aimed at changing the procedures states followed in dealing with criminal defendants. Notable decisions guaranteed the right to counsel in state trials, limited police search and seizure practices, and required police to inform suspects of their rights.

Judicial activism versus judicial restraint

There are opposing viewpoints on whether or not appellate courts should make criminal justice policy. Judicial activism consists of abandoning a literal interpretation of the Constitution in pursuit of what the Supreme Court considers to be a proper course of action. Against this position is placed the ideal of judicial restraint, which advises judges to avoid the temptation to make public policy through their decisions.

The difference between activism and restraint is that judges engaging in the former go beyond interpreting the law and participate in making the law. To a judicial activist, constitutional rights are dynamic phenomena. The protections of the Bill of Rights, according to Chief Justice Warren, “must draw [their] meaning from evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Judicial activism is not wedded to a political philosophy—it can be conservative or liberal.