The Gatekeepers: Federal District Courts in the Political Process

By Kevin L. Lyles | Go to book overview

2 The Federal District Courts: Institutional and Functional Perspectives

By all odds, the workhorses of the federal judiciary . . .

--Henry Abraham 1

This chapter looks directly at the district courts in both institutional and functional terms. First I look briefly at the nature and development of district courts as policy actors. Next, I look more closely at how these judges themselves view the operation and function of the district courts in both legal and political contexts. Throughout this discussion, relevant National District Court Judge Survey (NDJS) data are included where appropriate to fill the gaps between the institutional nature of the courts and the practical realities about what the judges actually believe about their role and institutional functions in the American political process.


THE FEDERAL DISTRICT COURTS: INSTITUTIONAL DEVELOPMENT, GROWTH, AND OPERATION

Article III of the Constitution vests judicial power in "one Supreme Court and in such inferior courts as Congress may from time to time ordain and establish" (Art. III, Sec. 1). However, soon after the ratification of the Constitution, Congress began to expand federal court organization by its passage of the First Judiciary Act of 1789. 2 By this Act, the First Congress established both federal circuit courts (a forerunner to the modern day Courts of Appeals) 3 as well as the district courts. A district court was established in each state and was presided over by a district judge.

Initially, the district courts were primarily federal misdemeanor courts with limited criminal and civil jurisdiction. As stipulated by the First Judiciary Act of

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