The Federal Courts consist of several types of courts. Sometimes, they are designed to hear a specific type of case, such as bankruptcy or tax cases, but other times, the division of courts reflects the basic structure of the U.S. Government as outlined in the Constitution.
The first three articles of the U.S. Constitution describe the three branches of government. Article I describes the congress, Article II describes the executive branch, which is run by the president, and Article III describes the judicial system.
Article III courts are those that are expressly authorized in the judicial section of the Constitution. Aside from the three levels of general federal courts (district, appellate, and Supreme Court), there are also several U.S. magistrate judges in each district. These judges take some of the workload off of the district court judge by hearing pre-trial motions, which are the legal arguments that take place before the trial actually starts. Magistrates can also hear some minor cases upon consent of the parties.
Article I Courts are created by the legislature to help support the laws they have written. These courts include:
Article I and Article II courts are subject to very different rules. Article III provides constitutional protections to judges, who are generally appointed by the president and serve for life. In contrast, Article I judges are hired and fired according to the way Congress designed the courts. Sometimes they are appointed by a member of Congress, or voted onto the bench by Congressional Committee. Judges will then serve for a period of years, at which point they must be rehired before continuing for another term.
For more information on courts and the judicial system, see FindLaw's section on the U.S. Legal System.
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