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Federal District Courts

Federal district courts are the workhorses of the federal judiciary. Just about every civil or criminal case heard in the federal courts starts at the district court level. District court judges review petitions, hear motions, hold trials, issue injunctions, and keep the wheels of justice spinning.

Federal district courts serve the 94 federal judicial districts. Each state has at least one judicial district. The three states with the largest population -- California, New York, and Texas -- have four judicial districts apiece. The District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands each make up a judicial district, and have a district court.

Role of the District Court

District courts are "trial" courts, meaning that district court judges have the authority to try cases. The Supreme Court and the circuit courts are appellate courts, meaning that they have the authority to hear appeals of decisions by trial court judges. District court judges can conduct jury trials in criminal or civil proceedings. In some instances, district court judges can decide cases without a jury -- a procedure known as a "bench trial".

The role of federal judges at the trial court level is to decide questions of law. Almost every case filed in a federal court poses questions of law and questions of fact. For example, in a criminal trial, there are generally issues regarding such questions as the admissibility of certain kinds of evidence, the scope of a search warrant, or the legality of an arrest. These are questions of law for a trial judge to decide. On the other hand, there are also questions relating to whether the defendant actually committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. These are questions of fact. In federal courts, questions of fact are decided by a jury, or by the judge in a bench trial.

Workload of the District Courts

However, most cases never get that far. The overwhelming majority of cases before the federal courts at the district court level are decided before the case ever goes to trial. According to the the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the federal district courts handled over 250,000 civil cases in fiscal year 2003. However, only 4,206 cases, or 1.7 percent, were decided through the trial process. Only 2,674 cases went to a jury, with 1,532 cases heard as bench trials. About 40% of the cases that went to a jury trial involved alleged civil rights violations.

The following bar chart illustrates the number of civil and criminal cases filed in federal court in 2002 and 2003:


Source: 2003 Judical Business of the U.S. Courts.

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