District courts, also called trial courts, represent the United States federal court system throughout the country and its territories. These courts hear a variety of criminal and civil cases, ranging from matters regarding international agreements to bankruptcy proceedings. The US government is often a party in cases heard in these courts, but there are some factors that can make civil cases between two independent parties eligible for a trial. Many types of cases that don’t qualify for federal jurisdiction are heard by the local state court system.
Structure and Organization
There are 94 district courts scattered throughout the United States, which are broken down into 13 circuits according to region. There is at least one federal trial court in each state as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Each of these areas corresponds to districts for US Attorneys, who serve as the chief prosecutor for the interests of the federal government in each jurisdiction.
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As a part of the federal judicial system, district trial courts have a limited jurisdiction that directly depends on the actions of Congress. They only hear criminal cases that involve violation of federal law, not state law. This includes several serious felony offenses, including kidnapping, financial fraud and committing a crime with a firearm. These courts also include facilities to hear juvenile cases for children who commit a crime. Eligibility for juvenile court is usually restricted to those under the age of 16, but the age maximum can be extended to 18 if there are mitigating circumstances.
Many types of civil cases can be brought before a district court, including those involving the US government as a defendant. Any civil dispute that involves federal law rather than state law is usually eligible. District courts also settle matters regarding laws of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Some civil cases are brought to the US Tax Court, the Court of International Trade or the US Court of Federal Claims when there are special considerations, according to the US Department of Justice. A plaintiff may also file a civil suit with the federal court system if the parties involved are from different states or if civil rights violations are involved.
District Court Judiciary
Every federal trial court has at least one district judge as well as various assistant judges and magistrates. District judges are appointed for life service by order of the president and approval of Congress. There are currently more than 600 district judges serving in the 94 federal trial courts throughout the nation. Magistrates and assistant judges typically have the authorization to hear minor cases, like misdemeanors and civil suits involving less than $10,000.
Trial courts provide local access to federal courts, which makes them an essential part of the American justice system. While its role and numberares subject to changes in legislation by Congress, there is little doubt that the district court will continue to play a critical role in dispensing justice throughout the country in the decades ahead.