The Federal District Courts, the Federal Courts of Appeal, and the United States Supreme Court comprise the federal court system.

The federal courts are empowered to decide the constitutionality of federal laws, to resolve other disputes that arise under those laws, and to resolve disputes between residents of different states under certain circumstances.

Federal District Courts are the general trial courts of our United States federal court system.

How many Federal District Courts are there?

There are 89 districts in the 50 states, with five more in the U. S. territories, for a total of 94 districts, each with a federal court. Each federal district is designated within one of the several federal circuits. Michigan, which is located in the Sixth Circuit, is divided into the Eastern and Western Districts. The formal name of a Federal District Court is, for example, the “United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.”

The Federal District Court is the only federal court with jurisdiction or authority over civilians who commit federal crimes. Other federal courts hear specific types of disputes. For example, there is a United States Bankruptcy Court associated with each United States District Court. The United States Court of International Trade hears cases involving international trade and customs issues. The United States Court of Federal Claims has exclusion authority over most claims for money damages against the U.S., including disputes over federal contracts, unlawful takings of private property by the federal government, or suits for injury on federal property.

What type of cases does the Federal District Court have the power to hear?

While the power of the federal courts is strictly limited, the following are the types of cases that district courts can hear and decide:

  • Civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States,
  • Certain civil actions between citizens of different states,
  • Civil actions within the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction of the United States,
  • Criminal prosecutions brought by the United States, and
  • Civil actions in which the United States is a party.

For most of these cases, a plaintiff can choose to bring these cases in either a Federal District Court or a state court. Congress has established a procedure whereby a party, usually the defendant, can “remove” a case from state to federal court provided that the case could have been originally filed in federal court. If the party that initially filed the case in state court believes that removal was improper, that party can ask the district court to “remand” the case back to the state court system. Only federal courts can conduct trials of patent and copyright infringement disputes and prosecutions for federal crimes.

Federal District Court Judges

As of 2010, there were 678 federal district court judges. The number of judges and the structure of the judicial system generally is set by Congress. The President appoints the federal judges subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. The Federal District Judges are appointed for life and can be removed involuntarily only when they violate the standard of “good behavior”. The sole method of involuntary removal of a judge is through impeachment by the United States House of Representatives followed by a trial in the United States Senate and a conviction by a two-thirds vote.

A judge who has reached the age of 65 (or has become disabled) may retire or elect to go on senior status and keep working. Such senior judges are not counted in the quota of active judges and do only whatever work they are assigned by the Chief Judge. They keep their offices (called “chambers”) and staff, and many continue to work full-time. A federal judge is addressed in writing as “The Honorable John/Jane Doe” or “Hon. John/Jane Doe” and in speech as “Judge” or “Judge Doe” or, when presiding in court, “Your Honor”.

Federal Magistrate Judges are appointed for eight-year terms by each Federal District Court. Magistrate judges prepare reports and recommendations on contested matters for the district judge’s consideration or, with the consent of all parties, assume complete jurisdiction over a case including conducting the trial. A magistrate judgeship may be a stepping stone to a district judgeship nomination.


Generally, a final ruling by a Federal District Court in either a civil or a criminal case can be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals in the federal judicial circuit in which the district court is located, except that some district court rulings involving patents and certain other specialized matters must be appealed instead to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and in a very few cases the appeal may be taken directly to the United States Supreme Court.

Knowing which court to use to settle your legal problems is complicated. For answers to your questions, please call Miller Law partner Kevin F. O’Shea.