The Federal Court System and Federal Criminal Procedure

The United States government consists of three branches, one being the judicial branch or the court system. Article III of the U.S. The Constitution called for the establishment of a Supreme Court and other courts to hear cases dealing with federal law and international issues. These courts may hear criminal, civil, or other specific legal issues. They must abide by the proper procedure and rules to ensure justice and protect democracy.

Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts

To preside over a case, federal courts must have the proper jurisdiction to hear the matter. These courts have limited jurisdiction, meaning they are restricted to only hearing cases authorized by law.

Original Jurisdiction

For the federal courts to have original jurisdiction, the case must arise under a federal statute, the U.S. Constitution, or a treatise. They also have original jurisdiction over specific subject legal areas such as federal agencies and military or maritime issues.

Some cases may involve both state and federal issues, meaning someone may bring the case in either federal or state court. If the case involves a federal question, then a party may choose to “remove” the case from the state courts.

Diversity Jurisdiction

There are some instances where a case based solely on state law may be heard in the federal system instead of in the state courts. One way to bring one of these cases in federal court is diversity jurisdiction, which requires that all parties reside in different states. The claim must also exceed $75,000, also known as the amount in controversy requirement.

Typically, cases with diversity jurisdiction involve civil claims for financial damages or suing the government.

However, the federal judiciary cannot hear all cases that meet these standards. For example, they do not hear cases involving divorce or other domestic relations. But there are exceptions for instances such as tort cases from domestic violence or some probate issues. Additionally, criminal cases may not be brought under diversity jurisdiction to prevent double jeopardy.

The Levels of the U.S. Federal Court System

The United States federal court system is split into three main levels, similar to the state court system. The district courts are the entry-level trial courts, above that are the circuit courts for appeals, followed by the Supreme Court of the United States. Each level is unique and serves a specific role in our country’s judicial system.

United States District Court

The U.S. District Courts are the trial court level of the federal court system. They serve as the original starting point, where both criminal and civil cases first enter the federal court system. For criminal cases, a U.S. Attorney prosecutes the case on behalf of the government.

The president appoints district court judges, who are then confirmed by the Senate to serve a life term on the bench. Many district courts also utilize federal magistrate judges. These judges are appointed by a majority vote of the district court judges. They serve part-time for four years or eight years if serving full time and may be reappointed for additional terms. Magistrate judges often oversee initial hearings, motions, or other early aspects of cases and issue search and arrest warrants.

Some district courts focus on specific legal subject areas. Every district has a bankruptcy court, and there are almost thirty immigration courts throughout the country. Some subject-specific courts are reserved for national or international issues such as the United States Tax Court, United States Court of International Trade, and the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.

United States Court of Appeals

The U.S. Courts of Appeals, commonly referred to as the circuit courts, serve as the intermediate appellate level of the federal court system. This level consists of twelve geographically-determined circuits, including eleven “numbered” circuits and the District of Columbia Circuit. The Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit has jurisdiction over a wide variety of appeals that touch on nationwide issues.

These appellate courts mostly preside over cases within their circuit’s jurisdiction. Still, they may hear other appeals from other subject-specific courts or decisions by administrative agencies. Some national and international specific legal areas have their own particular appellate court of appeals as well.

Like district court judges, appellate judges are nominated by the president and go through the Senate confirmation procedure. But, they have a lifetime appointment. Federal circuit courts are perhaps the most influential because of the legal precedent handed down in circuit court opinions.

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is commonly referred to as the court of last resort because it is the highest of the federal courts. The legal precedent set in the opinions delivered by SCOTUS  often impacts our civil rights but they also cover a lot of other issues as well. In addition, rulings may have significant implications for state law as well.

SCOTUS has the jurisdiction not only to hear appeals from the federal appellate level but may also preside over state court appeals for cases involving a question of federal law. SCOTUS also has the power of judicial review. This means the Supreme Court may determine the validity of a statute or presidential directive under the U.S. Constitution or other federal statutory law.

SCOTUS consists of one chief justice and eight associate justices. All justices serve lifetime appointments until they elect to resign or retire, pass away, or are removed from office. Each justice receives one vote when determining which cases the Supreme Court should hear. The Supreme Court hears cases annually from the first Monday of October and ends typically in late June.

The procedure for appointing a Supreme Court Justice is more in-depth than the other levels. Candidates are nominated by the president, then go through several hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee before the Senate votes. If the Senate votes to confirm the nomination, the president may formally appoint the candidate as a justice of the Supreme Court.

Federal Criminal Cases

Federal charges are defined within statutes along with specified minimum and maximum sentencing requirements. Although some specific federal rules and procedures must be followed, prosecutors have some latitude when determining what charges to bring.

Filing Criminal Charges

Criminal charges are filed by federal prosecutors or a U.S. Attorney’s office in an effort to convict and punish persons who commit federal crimes. Since the federal government initiates these cases, individuals may not file criminal charges against each other. But, you may file a report with the FBI or the appropriate law enforcement agency if you need to report a federal crime.

Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

The federal system follows the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Federal Rules give guidance on the criminal prosecution process and procedure to ensure a fair trial for both the federal government and the defendant at all levels. These rules of criminal procedure help to ensure the justice system functions properly, without infringing on a defendant’s rights.

In addition to the Federal Rules, the Constitution outlines several fundamental constitutional rights and protections for defendants. These protections include:

  • The right to an attorney
  • The right to a jury trial
  • The right against self-incrimination
  • The right to confront a witness to the proceeding
  • The right to due process
  • Protection against unreasonable search and seizure

Criminal Procedure at the Federal Level

When someone is suspected of committing a federal crime, prosecutors and judges all follow the same federal criminal procedure rules. The court will issue a warrant for arrest based on the evidence gathered in a search by law enforcement. The warrant is typically accompanied by an affidavit explaining the crime committed and the probable cause for the arrest.

Next, the defendant attends their initial appearance where a magistrate judge determines release conditions or bond and whether the defendant qualifies for a public defender. If the prosecutor requests the defendant to be detained, a detention hearing is held within three days for the judge to determine whether the defendant is a flight risk or a danger to the community. 

Within ten days of the arrest, the defendant has the right to a preliminary hearing where the U.S. Attorney testifies to establish probable cause. The defense attorney can provide evidence to disprove it. If the magistrate judge determines there is probable cause, then a  grand jury hears the details of the case and determines whether to return an indictment.

No later than ten days after the indictment, an  arraignment occurs where the defendant enters their initial plea of guilty or not guilty. In some cases, the defense attorney and prosecutor work together to create a plea agreement and often have lesser sentencing or penalties. Other times, the next step is scheduled, such as a date for a  motion hearing or trial.

Once the case moves to  trial, a jury and a district court judge will hear the evidence presented and any witness or expert testimony. The prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and the jury must unanimously decide the final verdict. If the defendant is found not guilty, they are released. They cannot be tried again for the same crime in a separate trial, but the prosecution may try to file an appeal. 

If the defendant is found guilty, the next step in the court process is to present information about the defendant and the impact of their crime on the victims to make a  pre-sentencing investigation report. ​About eight weeks after the guilty verdict, the judge will impose a sentence. The defendant can decide to file an appeal for either the guilty verdict or sentencing determination.

Speak to an Experienced Federal Criminal Law Attorney Today

This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified federal criminal lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local federal criminal attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

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