District Courts

District Courts in the United States

Federal Courts: District Courts

Congress has divided the United States into 94 federal districts and authorized about 650 judges to serve in the courts of those districts. Each district is contained within a state and no district overlaps state boundaries. Every state (and Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth) has at least one federal district. Some states have more than one district-New York and California have four. District court trials are presided over by individual judges, who are responsible for controlling every aspect of the cases assigned to them. U.S. district judges are frequently involved in assessing the facts of the cases presented. The district court judge’s findings of fact are ordinarily not appealable, but the appellate court may review the district court judge’s rulings of law.

A defendant facing federal criminal prosecution is entitled to a jury trial. The parties in most federal civil trials are entitled to juries if they wish.” (1)

For a meaning of it, read District Courts in the Legal Dictionary here.

Judicial Branch Structure and the District Courts

Most federal cases start out in the district courts, which are trial courts-courts that hear testimony about the facts of a case. There are about 90 district courts, including one or more in each state, one in the District of Columbia, one in Puerto Rico, and three territorial courts with jurisdiction over Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and other U.S. territories. Each district is assigned from 2 to 28 judges, and there are about 650 district court judges in all. Each year the district courts handle more than 250,000 civil cases and more than 45,000 criminal cases, but only a tiny percentage of the civil and criminal cases actually go to trial.” (2)

Legal Materials

The address, clerk, telephone number (and sometimes a street map of how to get to) U.S. district courts is listed in “The Litigator’s Pocket Guide to State and Federal Trial Courts,” a supplement to The American Lawyer. You can also get addresses and telephone numbers from the Judicial Staff Directory, the Judicial Yellow BookUSCourts.gov and Court Web sites.

Links to District Court Web sites are posted by the Federal Judiciary and FindLaw.

For other sources of contact information, see the entries for “Court Clerks / Court Houses” and/or “Judges.”

Complaints: District Court complaints are available from PACER (for a small fee once you register for a password) and the other services discussed in the “Docket Sheets” entry. Complaints for some cases starting in 2004 are available from Justia (for free and without a password). In addition, the Courthouse News Service (CNS) provides a current awareness service for many district courts and allows subscribers to download complaints for new cases announced in the daily emails. If those sources don’t work, then you generally have to get a copy from the court or the relevant archives.

Court Rules: See the separate entry for “Federal Court Rules” (including local rules) and “Federal Procedure Rules.” If you need rules for filing pleadings in multiple Federal courts, see Legal Secretary Federal Litigation (James Publishing).

Districts: To find out the name of the district court where a Federal judge sits, look him/her up in The American Bench, The Judicial Yellow Book, the Judicial Staff Directory or and most other judicial directories (see “Judges”).

Most states have one district court, but some have two or more (e.g. California has Northern, Southern and Central district courts). You can see the geography of the districts on this map. To find out which counties are represented by which court, look up the state in Title 28 of the U.S. Code, Chapter 5, sections 81 though 131. You could also look in: The Judicial Staff Directory; The Judicial Yellow Book, Want’s Federal-State Court Directory or another good court directory. You could also call the court or check their Web site.

Also see the separate entry for “Judicial Districts.”

Docket Sheets and Case Filings: You can always get docket sheets, pleadings, motions, etc. from the court clerk’s office, but most of these materials are available online. To get them, see “Docket Sheets.”

Forms: Federal court forms are posted in the Forms & Fees section of the United States Courts web site. The forms of individual district courts are generally available on the court’s web site. The forms of individual district courts are also published in West’s 2-volume Federal Local Court Forms. Otherwise, then contact the court.

Opinions: Selected district court opinions are also published in the Federal Supplement and Federal Rules Decisions. They are searchable on Lexis (by state post office code: MEGA;__DIST) and Westlaw (the DCT file back through 1945; DCT-OLD before 1945). Smaller collections of district court opinions are available FDsys.gov(back to April 2004; free), VersusLaw, Fastcase, LOIS and, for free, Google Scholar.

All district court opinions are available in the online case files on PACER and the commercial services that make it possible to search PACER documents. For more on these services, see “Docket Sheets.”

Some District Courts post opinions on their web sites. You can find these sites through FindLaw. See also “Unreported Decisions.”

Precedent: District Courts are required to follow the legal opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for their circuit, under the doctrine ofstare decisis. Some judges have said that district courts should also follow the legal opinions of other district court judges in their district. See e.g., United States v. Hirschhorn, 21 F.2d 758 (S.D.N.Y. 1927), where the court did not follow its own advice, and Kerr v. Hurd, No. 3:07-cv-297, 694 F.Supp.2d 817 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 15, 2010), where it did.

Statistics:Statistics on individual U.S. district courts is compiled by the Federal Judiciary and posted on the Federal Court Management Statistics page of the U.S. Courts website. The statistics include the number of filings, the number of pending cases, the number of cases closed, etc.

Transcripts and Recordings: “In 2007, PACER instituted a policy to automatically include PDF transcripts from U.S. District and Bankruptcy courts if they are ordered by a party and subsequently produced, with a 90-day delay during which the transcripts may be inspected at the court clerk’s office. Selected District Courts (including the Southern District of New York) also provide digital audio recordings of proceedings in PACER at the discretion of the trial judge” (from the Duke Law Library’s Court Records and Briefs page).

Finding the law: District Courts in the U.S. Code

A collection of general and permanent laws relating to district courts, passed by the United States Congress, are organized by subject matter arrangements in the United States Code (U.S.C.; this label examines district courts topics), to make them easy to use (usually, organized by legal areas into Titles, Chapters and Sections). The platform provides introductory material to the U.S. Code, and cross references to case law. View the U.S. Code’s table of contents here.

District Courts

In Legislation

District Courts in the U.S. Code: Title 28, Part III, Chapter 49

The current, permanent, in-force federal laws regulating district courts are compiled in the United States Code under Title 28, Part III, Chapter 49. It constitutes “prima facie” evidence of statutes relating to Judiciary (including district courts) of the United States. The reader can further narrow his/her legal research of the general topic (in this case, Court Personeel and District Courts of the US Code, including district courts) by chapter and subchapter.

District Courts

In Legislation

District Courts in the U.S. Code: Title 28, Part I, Chapter 5

The current, permanent, in-force federal laws regulating district courts are compiled in the United States Code under Title 28, Part I, Chapter 5. It constitutes “prima facie” evidence of statutes relating to Judiciary (including district courts) of the United States. The reader can further narrow his/her legal research of the general topic (in this case, Courts Organization and District Courts of the US Code, including district courts) by chapter and subchapter.


Notes and References

  1. Information about District Courts in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  2. Id.

See Also

American court system (in U.S. law)
Case Pulls
Court Clerks
Court Houses
Docket Sheets
Federal Court Rules
Federal Procedure Rules
Judicial Districts
Jury Instructions
United States Courts, generally
Unreported Decisions

Further Reading

In this Section

  • Courts in the United States
  • Courts Development
  • Federal Courts
  • Courts of Appeals
  • Supreme Court
  • Courts of Special Jurisdiction
  • Territorial Courts
  • State Courts
  • Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
  • Courts of General Jurisdiction
  • Intermediate Appellate Courts
  • Supreme Appellate Courts
  • Courts Challanges
  • Courts of Appeals

United States District Courts in the Context of Law Research

The Thurgood Marshall School of Law Library defined briefly United States District Courts as: A federal trial court having jurisdiction within its judicial district.Legal research resources, including United States District Courts, help to identify the law that governs an activity and to find materials that explain that law.

District Courts: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about District Courts. This part provides references, in relation to District Courts, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about District Courts by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about District Courts and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about District Courts or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to District Courts and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting District Courts. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about District Courts should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to District Courts when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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