U.S. district courts - point of input for the federal judicial system

The U.S. district courts represent
the basic point of input for the
federal judicial system. Although some cases are later taken to a
court of appeals or perhaps even to the
Supreme Court, most federal cases
never move beyond the U.S. trial
courts. In terms of sheer numbers of
cases handled, the district courts are
the workhorses of the federal judiciary. 

However, their importance extends beyond simply disposing of a
large number of cases.
The First District Courts
Congress made the decision to create a
national network of federal trial
courts when it passed the Judiciary Act
of 1789. Section 2 of the act established 13 district courts by making
each of the 11 states then in the Union
a district, and by making the parts of
Massachusetts and Virginia that were
to become Maine and Kentucky into
separate districts. That organizational
scheme established the practice, which
still exists, of honoring state boundary
lines in drawing districts. 

The First District Judges
Each federal district court was to be
presided over by a single judge who
resided in the district. As soon as this
became known, President Washington
began receiving letters from individuals desiring appointment to the various judgeships. Many asked members
of Congress or Vice President John
Adams to recommend them to President Washington. Personal applications were not necessarily successful
and were not the only way in which
names came to the president’s attention. Harry Innes, for example, was
not an applicant for the Kentucky
judgeship but received it after being
recommended by a member of Congress from his state.

 As new states came into the Union,
additional district courts were created.
The additions, along with resignations, gave Washington an opportunity to offer judgeships to 33 people. All
of the judges he appointed were members of the bar, and all but seven had
state or local legal experience as
judges, prosecutors, or attorneys general. Presidents have continued to appoint lawyers with public service
backgrounds to the federal bench.

Present Organization of the
District Courts
As the country grew, new district
courts were created. Eventually, Congress began to divide some states into
more than one district. California,
New York, and Texas have the most,
with four each. Other than consistently honoring state lines, the organization of district constituencies appears
to follow no rational plan. Size and
population vary widely from district
to district. Over the years, a court was
added for the District of Columbia,
and several territories have been
served by district courts. 

There are
now U.S. district courts serving the 50
states, the District of Columbia,
Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands,
and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The original district courts were
each assigned one judge. With the
growth in population and litigation,
Congress has periodically had to add
judges to most of the districts. The
Federal Judgeship Act of 1990 created
74 new district judgeships, bringing
the current total to 649. Today all
districts have more than one judge;
the Southern District of New York,
which includes Manhattan and the
Bronx, currently has 28 judges and is
thus the largest. Because each federal
district court is normally presided
over by a single judge, several trials
may be in session within the district at
any given time. 

The District Courts as Trial Courts
Congress established the district
courts as the trial courts of the federal
judicial system and gave them original
jurisdiction over virtually all cases.
They are the only federal courts in
which attorneys examine and crossexamine witnesses. The factual record
is thus established at this level. Subsequent appeals of the trial court decision focus on correcting errors rather
than on reconstructing the facts.
The task of determining the facts in
a case often falls to a jury, a group of
citizens from the community who
serve as impartial arbiters of the facts
and apply the law to the facts. The
Constitution guarantees the right to a
jury trial in criminal cases in the Sixth
Amendment and the same right in
civil cases in the Seventh Amendment.

 The right can be waived, however, in
which case the judge becomes the arbiter both of questions of fact and of
matters of law. Such trials are referred
to as bench trials.
Two types of juries are associated
with federal district courts. 

The grand
jury is a group of men and women
convened to determine whether there
is probable cause to believe that a person has committed the federal crime
of which he or she has been accused.
Grand jurors meet periodically to hear
charges brought by the U.S. attorney.
Petit jurors are chosen at random
from the community to hear evidence
and determine whether a defendant in
a civil trial has liability or whether a
defendant in a criminal trial is guilty
or not guilty. Federal rules call for 12
jurors in criminal cases but permit
fewer in civil cases. The federal district
courts generally use six-person juries
in civil cases.
Trial courts are viewed as engaging
primarily in norm enforcement,

whereas appellate courts are seen as
having greater opportunity to make
policy. Norm enforcement is closely
tied to the administration of justice,
because all nations develop standards
considered essential to a just and orderly society. Societal norms are
embodied in statutes, administrative
regulations, prior court decisions,
and community traditions. Criminal
statutes, for example, incorporate concepts of acceptable and unacceptable
behavior into law. A judge deciding a
case concerning an alleged violation of
that law is practicing norm enforcement.

 Because cases of this type rarely
allow the judge to escape the strict restraints of legal and procedural requirements, he or she has little chance
to make new law or develop new policy. In civil cases, too, judges are often
confined to norm enforcement, because such litigation generally arises
from a private dispute whose outcome
is of interest only to the parties in
the suit.
The district courts also play a
policy-making role, however. As Americans have become more litigationconscious, 

disputes that were once resolved informally are now more likely
to be decided in a court of law. The
courts find themselves increasingly involved in domains once considered
private. What does this mean for the
federal district courts? According to
one study, “These new areas of judicial
involvement tend to be relatively free
of clear, precise appellate court and
legislative guidelines; and as a consequence the opportunity for trial court
jurists to write on a clean slate, that is,
to make policy, is formidable.

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