GOVERNMENT > The Three Branches > Judicial Branch > Administrative Office of the United States Courts
The structure of the federal court system has varied a great deal throughout the history of the nation. The Constitution merely provides that the judicial power of the United States "be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." Thus, the only indispensable court is the Supreme Court. Congress has established and abolished other U.S. courts as national needs have changed over time.
If the federal court system is viewed as a pyramid, at the top is the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court. (See Figure 1. ) On the next level are the 13 United States Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. On the following level are the 94 U.S. district courts and the specialized courts, such as the Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and the Court of International Trade. There are various routes a case may take to a federal court. Some cases may originate in a U.S. district court, while others will come from a state court or federal agency.
A person involved in a suit in a U.S. court may proceed through three levels of decision. Generally, the case will be heard and decided by one of the district courts on the first level. If a party is dissatisfied with the decision rendered, the party may have the decision reviewed in one of the courts of appeals. If dissatisfied with the decision of a court of appeals, the party may seek additional review in the Supreme Court of the United States; however, the Supreme Court primarily reviews only cases that involve a matter of great national importance and only accepts a small number of cases each term.
This pyramid-like organization of the courts serves two purposes. First, the courts of appeals can correct errors that have been made in the decisions of trial courts. Second, the Supreme Court can ensure the uniformity of decisions by reviewing cases in which constitutional issues have been decided or in which two or more lower courts have reached different results.
Courts are presided over by judicial officers. In the Supreme Court, the judicial officers are called justices. In the courts of appeals, district courts, and other courts, most of the judicial officers are called judges. Today's justices and judges have the authority, duties, and benefits assigned to them by law, as enacted and amended by Congress.
Judges who are at least 65 years of age and have served as active judges for a minimum of 15 years often elect to take senior status. As senior judges, they may continue to hear cases, deal with administrative matters, and serve on special commissions and committees. Nearly 15 percent of the federal courts' caseload has been handled by senior judges.
See Glossary of Terms.