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Legal Research Manual

This edition of Legal Research Manual builds on many previous editions. While the manual is designed principally for use with the first year legal research classes, upper year law students will also find it a useful reference.

Federal Court System

For further information, see Understanding the Federal Courts from the United States Courts.

Jurisdiction of Federal Courts

The US Constitution, Article III, section 2 outlines the jurisdiction of the federal courts:

  • Controversies to which the US is a party.
  • Controversies between two or more states; between a state and citizens of another state; between citizens of different states; between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states.
  • Cases affecting ambassadors, ministers, consuls; cases between a state or its citizen and foreign states, its citizens, or subjects.
  • All cases in law and equity arising under the United States Constitution, laws of the United States, treaties, and cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. Under these provisions the United States courts decide cases involving the Constitution, laws enacted by Congress, treaties, or laws relating to navigable waters.

US Supreme Court

The jurisdiction of the highest US court is:

  • exclusive jurisdiction involving disputes between two or more states, or where a foreign state is being sued;
  • concurrent jurisdiction with lower federal courts involving disputes between the US and a state, disputes between a state and citizens of another state or aliens, or where a foreign official brings a suit;
  • appellate jurisdiction involving:
    • review by appeal (a matter of right where a lower federal court has invalidated a state statute, or where a highest state court has upheld a federal statute);
    • review by certiorari (a discretion in the US Supreme Court to hear a case involving an important federal question);
    • review by certification of any question of law (a request by a US Court of Appeals for instructions); and
  • special writs may be granted, e.g. habeas corpus to compel a lower court to act or to prohibit something.

United States Court of Appeals

There are presently 13 different circuits. They review all final decisions and certain interlocutory decisions of district courts within their circuit, review decisions of the tax court, and review decisions of federal administrative boards.

  • First Circuit: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island
  • Second Circuit: Connecticut, New York, Vermont
  • Third Circuit: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virgin Islands
  • Fourth Circuit: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia
  • Fifth Circuit: Canal Zone, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas
  • Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee
  • Seventh Circuit: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin
  • Eighth Circuit: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota
  • Ninth Circuit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Washington
  • Tenth Circuit: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming
  • Eleventh Circuit: Alabama, Florida, Georgia
  • D.C.: District of Columbia Circuit
  • Federal: Federal Circuit

United States District Courts

Each state has one or more district courts, with the following jurisdiction:

  • Exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty; bankruptcy; patent or copyright law; cases involving a fine, penalty or forfeiture under federal law; proceedings against consuls of foreign states; seizures on land or water. It includes jurisdiction over all offenses against the laws of the United States; cases where the US, a national bank, or I.R.S. is a party, and may include civil rights cases, election disputes, and other jurisdiction spelled out by federal legislation.
  • Concurrent jurisdiction with states courts:
    • If the matter is a "federal question" where the controversy arises under the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, or treaties and more than $75,000 is involved.
    • If "complete diversity" of the dispute exists; i.e., where the dispute involves citizens of different states, or between a citizen of a state and an alien.
  • Removal jurisdiction: If suit is brought in state court, the defendant may remove the case to federal district court if it involves:
    • "diversity"
    • a "federal question"
    • an action against US officials
    • cases in which a state court is not properly enforcing a law providing for equal civil rights
    • cases against members of the armed forces.

Special Courts of the United States

These include Court of Federal Claims, Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Tax Court, Court of International Trade, Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, etc.