This article is from the Legal Research FAQ, by Mark Eckenwiler with numerous contributions by others.
The lowest tier of federal courts, where suits are first
brought and trials are held, is called the District Court level.
District Courts hear every type of federal case, whether civil or
criminal in nature. Each district may have several judges, and
covers part or all of a state.
There are two groups of district court judges, "regular service"
and "senior status." Their powers are equal, and all enjoy life
tenure (under Article III of the U.S. Constitution); the only
difference is that senior judges, by virtue of having been on the
bench for at least ten years, may have lighter dockets (caseloads)
and may choose what types of cases they hear. (Some senior judges
have used this prerogative to refuse trials or sentencing in drug
cases.) There are roughly 630 regular-service District Court Judges,
a total set by statute. 28 USC sec. 133. There is no limit on the
number of senior judges, other than the minimum age of 65
prerequisite to electing senior status. 28 USC sec. 371.
District Court judges are often assisted by so-called Magistrate
Judges (aka magistrates). Magistrates are not life-tenure judges;
rather, they are auxiliary officers (appointed under Article I of the
Constitution) who handle certain kinds of tasks delegated by District
Judges. Magistrates may take "not guilty" pleas in felony criminal
arraignments; they also frequently handle discovery disputes,
misdemeanor trials, settlement negotiations, and hearings to calculate
damages. Their orders are generally appealable to the District Judge
from whom the matter was referred. 28 USC sec. 636.
In addition to the District Courts, there are a few trial-level
federal courts with limited subject-matter jurisdiction. These
include the Court of Claims and the Court of International Trade.
There is also the system of federal Bankruptcy Courts, staffed by
judges who (like magistrates) are Article I (i.e., auxiliary) officers
appointed for a limited term of years.