an imageThe USA has two separate and distinct court systems. To research American law requires an appreciation of both federal and state courts. Under Article III Section 1 the judicial power vests in one Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress authorizes. Article III Section 2 states the jurisdiction of the federal courts:

  • Controversies to which the USA is a party,
  • Controversies between two or more states, between a state and citizens of another state, between citizens of different states, between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states,
  • Cases affecting ambassadors, ministers, and consuls, cases between a state or its citizen and foreign states, its citizens, or subjects,
  • All cases in law and equity under federal laws, treaties, and cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Under these provisions the United States courts decide cases under the constitution, laws enacted by Congress, treaties, or laws of navigable waters.

The Supreme Court of the USA has

  • Exclusive jurisdiction over disputes between states or against foreign sovereignties,
  • Concurrent jurisdiction with lower federal courts over disputes between the USA and a state, disputes between a state and citizens of another state or aliens, or where a foreign official brings a suit,
  • Appellate jurisdiction for
  • Mandatory review by right on appeal, if any,
  • Discretionary review by writ of certiorari,
  • Review by certification of any question of law by a court of appeals, and
  • Review by special writs to compel lower courts to act or to refrain from action.

Federal Courts of Appeals in 13 geographic circuits review all final decisions and some interlocutory decisions of district courts, decisions of the tax court, and decisions of federal administrative agencies.

Each state has one or more federal district courts with the following grants of jurisdiction:

  • Exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty, bankruptcy, patent, or copyright law, cases under federal laws, proceedings against consuls of foreign states, cases where an organ or agency the USA is a party,
  • Concurrent jurisdiction with state courts in cases
  • Under federal laws or treaties involving more than $75,000,
  • Between citizens of different states or between a citizen and an alien.

State court civil defendants may remove cases to federal courts on grounds of complete diversity of state citizenship, federal questions, actions against federal officials, state court failures to enforce equal civil rights, and actions against members of the armed forces.

Some special federal courts are the Court of Federal Claims, Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Tax Court, Court of International Trade, and Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.