Why Do Federal Courts Matter?
Federal judges have the power to influence every aspect of public policy. They make decisions every day about health care, reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, voting rights, the environment, law enforcement , LGBTQ rights, civil rights, and more. These decisions impact our lives today, and the lives of future generations.
These judges are appointed for life. It is critical that they are FAIR, INDEPENDENT, and QUALIFIED to protect the most oppressed in our society.
Frequently Asked Questions about Why #CourtsMatter
The Constitution guides the structure of our federal courts. Specifically, Article III of the Constitution establishes the federal judiciary, which currently includes 870 judges. It says there must be one Supreme Court, and Congress gets to decide how many and where there are lower courts.
The federal court system consists of three tiers. At the bottom are federal district courts, also called trial courts. In the middle are the federal appeals courts, also known as the circuit courts of appeal. At the top is the US Supreme Court.
In general, federal courts may decide cases that involve the US government, the US Constitution or federal laws, and/or controversies between states or between the US and foreign governments. Additionally, federal judges serve in lifetime seats subject to confirmation by the US Senate (with very few exceptions).
There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Each judicial district has one or more federal judges.
The 94 judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a US Court of Appeals. Cases appealed from district courts go to the appeals, or circuit courts. In addition, there is the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the 13th circuit court), with nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases. Generally, an appeal must be based on a claim that the district court judge committed a legal error. At the circuit court level, cases are typically heard by a panel of three judges, which means that even a few individual judges can be crucial to protecting the basic rights of many, many people.
An appeal of a circuit court decision would go to the US Supreme Court. Because so few cases are accepted for review by the Supreme Court, federal appeals court judges wield tremendous power. If the Supreme Court chooses not to hear an appeal, the decision made by the federal appeals court applies to all the states in the circuit.
The district courts are organized into 13 Courts of Appeal. (On this map you will see 11 circuits listed by number, the twelfth is the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, and the 13th is the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit).
Judges and courts are supposed to be insulated from politics. Unfortunately, over the past few years, we’ve seen many politically-driven changes to the traditional judicial nominations process.
Here is how the process previously worked:
- Once a vacancy is announced, the president consults with both senators from the state (aka home-state senators) in which the vacancy is based for recommendations for future judges.
- The president announces a nomination; the Senate Judiciary Committee sends something called “blue slips” to the two senators from the state where the judicial vacancy exists. A blue slip is essentially a permission slip for the nomination to move forward. If the home-state senators sign off, the committee moves forward with the nomination. If one or both of them disapproves or withholds the blue slip, the nomination won’t move forward. Like most of this process, however, the blue slip is not a formal Senate rule and can be ignored.
- Assuming blue slips are returned, the committee holds a hearing and, later, a vote on the nominee.
- If the nominee is voted favorably out of committee, the nominee then moves to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote and must receive a majority vote in the Senate.
A vacancy occurs when a judge resigns, retires, takes senior status, or passes away. Senior status is a classification for federal judges at all levels who are semi-retired. Senior judges are Article III judges who, having met eligibility through age and service requirements, continue to serve on federal courts while hearing a reduced number of cases.
A simple majority of US Senators present and voting is required to approve a nomination. If there is a tie, the Vice President (who also presides over the Senate) casts the deciding vote.
Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution dictates, “The president…shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint… Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States…”
There’s nothing in the Constitution that explicitly promises federal judges “lifetime appointments.” But the language of Article III says justices “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour,” which has been interpreted as open-ended on the issue of term length.
How can someone without a law degree, judicial experience, and/or other relevant experience be appointed and confirmed as a federal judge?
Though the US Constitution guides the process for confirming a federal judge, it does not specify the qualifications. Almost any American, despite their professional experience, can be nominated for a lifetime seat on the federal courts. Without the safeguards of US Senate traditions like blue slips, consultation with home-state senators, and nonpartisan American Bar Association (ABA) evaluations — along with the erosion of other senator norms to increase the pace of judicial nominations — senators are not able to adequately consider a nominee’s competence, principles, and temperament.
Over 400,000 cases are filed in federal district courts and circuit courts each year. These cases include discrimination and civil rights claims, criminal prosecutions, environmental and consumer protection litigation, challenges to government power, lawsuits to hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing, and more. Federal judicial nominees must have the requisite trial or litigation experience or its equivalent to manage and resolve the many diverse areas of law facing them daily. The accumulation of experience and legal knowledge gained by practicing law over time (at least 12 years according to the nonpartisan American Bar Association) prepares an attorney to handle a broad spectrum of legal issues in a wide variety of subject matters and to manage a courtroom over which they will preside as a judge.
Further, because each federal judge wields so much power, nominees must demonstrate that they will be impartial arbiters of the law. Indeed, the independence of federal judges is essential to serve as a check on politicians in all branches of government when they break the law or violate the Constitution.
While we often hear more about the US Supreme Court, they typically agree to hear fewer than 100 cases each term (about 1/10 of 1% of federal cases). The vast majority of cases are heard in district and circuit courts, which means their decisions are the final word.
Court of appeals and district court judgeships are created by legislation that must be enacted by Congress.
The importance of justice is a key part of Jewish tradition. Our text and tradition includes the importance of unbiased judges as well as fair and impartial courts. For the system to work for the people it serves, the federal courts must be devised of fair, qualified, and impartial judges who mete out just decisions equally. As the Torah guides, “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15)
Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have played an integral role in racial justice issues, advancing or striking down critical civil rights laws and regulations. From voting rights to the census to affirmative action to workplace discrimination, judges serving on the federal courts must have respect for the rule of law and the advances our nation has made in ensuring equal justice for all.
There are multiple ways to engage your senators and make your voice heard. Learn if your state has a judicial nominating commission, an entity responsible for vetting and recommending applicants for judicial vacancies. Determine how to share names of qualified judicial candidates with commissioners, and additionally with both of your senators. Once a nominee has been announced, you can reach out to your senators’ offices to share your support or concerns, as well as to Senate leadership and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Social media, op-eds, letters to the editor, and other digital and print media opportunities are also great ways to highlight federal judicial nominees throughout the process.