Article III of the Constitution of the United States establishes the federal government's judicial branch. The text of the Constitution only references the Supreme Court, but it gave the Senate and House of Representatives the power to create lower courts (known as “inferior courts") as necessary.
The fact that the Constitution only establishes one federal court says a lot about what the Framers were thinking when they were setting up a new government after the Revolutionary War. Many at the Constitutional Convention feared a strong central government would be too similar to the monarchy and advocated for the states to have more power. But others argued that leaving the interpretation of federal law up to state courts would mean the federal government would never get anything done.
In 1789, Congress set up the Supreme Court, which then had six justices. Today, there are nine Supreme Court justices, including the Chief Justice.
For more than 100 years, the Supreme Court was responsible for hearing all appeals in federal court cases. Then, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1891, also known as the Evarts Act. The Evarts Act created the U.S. Court of Appeals, a system of federal appellate courts tasked with reducing the workload of the Supreme Court. Congress divided this new court system into nine circuits and assigned a “circuit justice" to each.
If a party disagrees with the decision of a federal district court, they can appeal to have the decision reviewed by a three-judge panel in their circuit. Today, there are twelve federal circuits. The Evarts Act greatly limited the types of cases that could be appealed to the Supreme Court, giving appellate jurisdiction in most cases to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
What Does Article III of the U.S. Constitution Say?
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;--to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public ministers and Consuls;--to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;--to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;--to 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, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.