Jurisdiction and policy making


In setting the jurisdictions of courts,
Congress and the U.S. Constitution —
and their state counterparts — mandate the types of cases each court may
hear. This chapter considers how Congress, in particular, can influence judicial behavior by redefining the types of
cases judges may hear. It also discusses
judicial self-restraint, examining 10
principles, derived from legal tradition
and constitutional and statutory law,
that govern a judge’s decision about
whether to review a case.
The federal court system is divided into three separate levels: the
trial courts, the appellate tribunals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

 District Courts
Congress has set forth the jurisdiction
of the federal district courts. These
tribunals have original jurisdiction in
federal criminal and civil cases; that is,
by law, the cases must be first heard in
these courts, no matter who the parties are or how significant the issues.
Criminal Cases. These cases commence when the local U.S. attorneys
have reason to believe that a violation
of the U.S. Penal Code has occurred.
After obtaining an indictment from a
federal grand jury, the U.S. attorney
files charges against the accused in the
district court in which he or she
serves. Criminal activity as defined by
Congress covers a wide range of behavior, including interstate theft of an
automobile, illegal importation of
narcotics, assassination of a president,
conspiracy to deprive persons of their
civil rights, and even the killing of a
migratory bird out of season.

 After charges are filed against an
accused, and if no plea bargain has
been made, a trial is conducted by a
U.S. district judge. In court the defendant enjoys all the privileges and immunities granted in the Bill of Rights
(such as the right to a speedy and public trial) or by congressional legislation
or Supreme Court rulings (for instance, a 12-person jury must render a
unanimous verdict).

 Defendants may
waive the right to a trial by a jury of
their peers. A defendant who is found
not guilty of the crime is set free and
may never be tried again for the same
offense (the Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy). If the
accused is found guilty, the district
judge determines the appropriate
sentence within a range set by
Congress. The length of a sentence
cannot be appealed so long as it is in
the range prescribed. A verdict of not
guilty may not be appealed by the
government, but convicted defendants
may appeal if they believe that the
judge or jury makes improper legal determination 

Civil Cases. A majority of the district
court caseload is civil in nature; that is,
suits between private parties or between the U.S. government, acting in a

nonprosecutorial capacity, and a private party. Civil cases that originate in
the U.S. district courts may be placed
in several categories. The first is litigation concerning the interpretation or
application of the Constitution, acts of
Congress, or U.S. treaties. Examples of
cases in this category include the following: a petitioner claims that one of
his or her federally protected civil
rights has been violated, a litigant alleges that he or she is being harmed by
a congressional statute that is unconstitutional, and a plaintiff argues that
he or she is suffering injury from a
treaty that is improperly affecting him.
The key point is that a federal question
must be raised in order for the U.S.
trial courts to have jurisdiction.

some minimal dollar
amounts had to be in controversy in
some types of cases before the trial
courts would hear them, but such
amounts have been waived if the case
falls into one of several general categories. For example, an alleged violation of a civil rights law, such as the
Voting Rights Act of 1965, must be
heard by the federal rather than the
state judiciary. Other types of cases in
this category are patent and copyright
claims, passport and naturalization
proceedings, admiralty and maritime

 and violations of the U.S.
postal laws.
Another broad category of cases
over which the U.S. trial courts exercise general original jurisdiction includes what are known as diversity of
citizenship disputes. 

These are disputes between parties from different
states or between an American citizen
and a foreign country or citizen.
Federal district courts also have
jurisdiction over petitions from convicted prisoners who contend that
their incarceration (or perhaps their
denial of parole) is in violation of
their federally protected rights. In the
vast majority of these cases prisoners
ask for a writ of “habeas corpus”
(Latin for “you should have the

an order issued by a judge to
determine whether a person has been
lawfully imprisoned or detained. The
judge would demand that the prison
authorities either justify the detention
or release the petitioner. Prisoners
convicted in a state court must argue
that a federally protected right was
violated — for example, the right to
be represented by counsel at trial.
Otherwise, the federal courts would
have no jurisdiction. Federal prisoners
have a somewhat wider range for their
appeals since all their rights and
options are within the scope of the
U.S. Constitution.
Finally, the district courts have the
authority to hear any other cases that
Congress may validly prescribe by law.

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