History and Organization of the Federal Judicial System
(The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, Outline of the U.S. Legal System.)
One of the most important, most interesting, and, possibly, most confusing features of the judiciary in the United States is the dual court system; that is, each level of government (state and national) has its own set of courts. Thus, there is a separate court system for each state, one for the District of Columbia, and one for the federal government. Some legal problems are resolved entirely in the state courts, whereas others are handled entirely in the federal courts. Still others may receive attention from both sets of tribunals, which sometimes causes friction. The federal courts are discussed in this chapter and the state courts in Chapter 2.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, almost all functions of the national government were vested in a single-chamber legislature called Congress. There was no separation of executive and legislative powers.
The absence of a national judiciary was considered a major weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Consequently, the delegates gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 expressed widespread agreement that a national judiciary should be established. A good deal of disagreement arose, however, on the specific form that the judicial branch should take.
The Constitutional Convention and Article III
The first proposal presented to the Constitutional Convention was the Virginia Plan, which would have set up both a Supreme Court and inferior federal courts. Opponents of the Virginia Plan responded with the New Jersey Plan, which called for the creation of a single federal supreme tribunal. Supporters of the New Jersey Plan were especially disturbed by the idea of lower federal courts. They argued that the state courts could hear all cases in the first instance and that a right of appeal to the Supreme Court would be sufficient to protect national rights and provide uniform judgments throughout the country.
The conflict between the states' rights advocates and the nationalists was resolved by one of the many compromises that characterized the Constitutional Convention. The compromise is found in Article III of the Constitution, which begins, "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."
The Judiciary Act of 1789
Once the Constitution was ratified, action on the federal judiciary came quickly. When the new Congress convened in 1789, its first major concern was judicial organization. Discussion of Senate Bill 1 involved many of the same participants and arguments as were involved in the Constitutional Convention's debates on the judiciary. Once again, the question was whether lower federal courts should be created at all or whether federal claims should first be heard in state courts. Attempts to resolve this controversy split Congress into two distinct groups.
One group, which believed that federal law should be adjudicated in the state courts first and by the U.S. Supreme Court only on appeal, expressed the fear that the new government would destroy the rights of the states. The other group of legislators, suspicious of the parochial prejudice of state courts, feared that litigants from other states and other countries would be dealt with unjustly. This latter group naturally favored a judicial system that included lower federal courts. The law that emerged from this debate, the Judiciary Act of 1789, set up a judicial system composed of a Supreme Court, consisting of a chief justice and five associate justices; three circuit courts, each comprising two justices of the Supreme Court and a district judge; and 13 district courts, each presided over by one district judge. The power to create inferior federal courts, then, was immediately exercised. Congress created not one but two sets of lower courts.
The Supreme Court as Final Arbiter
The Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction. Original jurisdiction means that a court has the power to hear a case for the first time. Appellate jurisdiction means that a higher court has the authority to review cases originally decided by a lower court. The Supreme Court is overwhelmingly an appellate court since most of its time is devoted to reviewing decisions of lower courts. It is the highest appellate tribunal in the country. As such, it has the final word in the interpretation of the Constitution, acts of legislative bodies, and treaties – unless the Court's decision is altered by a constitutional amendment or, in some instances, by an act of Congress.
Since 1925 a device known as "certiorari" has allowed the Supreme Court to exercise discretion in deciding which cases it should review. Under this method a person may request Supreme Court review of a lower court decision; then the justices determine whether the request should be granted. If review is granted, the Court issues a writ of certiorari, which is an order to the lower court to send up a complete record of the case. When certiorari is denied, the decision of the lower court stands.
TAKEN FROM http://www.america.gov/st/usg-english/2008/May/20080522212957eaifas0.9853327.html