US Courts Governing US
Frequently Asked Questions About The Federal Courts

Federal Judges

            Q: Who appoints federal judges?

Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate, as stated in the Constitution. The names of potential nominees often are recommended by senators or sometimes members of the House who are of the President's political party.

Q: How are new judgeships created?

Court of appeals and district court judgeships are created by legislation that must be enacted by Congress. New judgeships were last created in July 2003, under Public Law 107-273, which established 15 new district court judgeships. The Judicial Conference (through its Judicial Resources Committee) surveys the judgeship needs of the courts every other year. A threshold for the number of weighted filings per judgeship is the key factor in determining when an additional judgeship will be requested. Other factors may include geography, number of senior judges, and mix of cases. The Judicial Conference presents its judgeship recommendations to Congress.

Q: What are the qualifications for becoming a federal judge?

The Constitution sets forth no specific requirements.

Q: What are federal magistrate judges?

A U.S. magistrate judge is a judicial officer of the district court and is appointed by majority vote of the active district judges of the court to exercise jurisdiction over matters assigned by statute as well as those delegated by the district judges. Duties assigned to magistrate judges by district court judges may vary considerably from court to court.

Q: When will the court reach a decision in my case?

Most cases are handled in an expeditious manner. The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 establishes standard time requirements for the timely prosecution and disposition of criminal cases in district courts. There is no similar law governing civil trial scheduling, and as a result, the scheduling of criminal cases is assigned a higher priority.

In 1990, Congress enacted legislation that directs each district court to devise and adopt a civil expense and delay reduction plan. One goal established under the legislation is for each civil case to be scheduled for trial within 18 months of filing the complaint.

Litigants should keep in mind that judges have many duties in addition to deciding cases. The average district court judge has more than 400 newly filed cases to contend with each year. In addition to trials, judges conduct sentencing, pretrial conferences, settlement conferences, motions hearings, write orders and opinions, and consider other court matters both in the courtroom and in their chambers.

There are numerous reasons for delay, many of which are outside of a court's control. Attorneys and/or litigants may be responsible. Cases may be delayed because settlement negotiations are in progress. Some courts also experience shortages in judges or available courtrooms.

Q: How are judges assigned to cases?

Judge assignment methods vary. The basic considerations in making assignments are to assure equitable distribution of caseload and avoid judge shopping. By statute, the chief judge of each district court has the responsibility to enforce the court's rules and orders on case assignments. Each court has a written plan or system for assigning cases. The majority of courts use some variation of a random drawing. One simple method is to rotate the names of available judges. At times judges having special expertise can be assigned cases by type, such as complex criminal cases, asbestos-related cases, or prisoner cases. The benefit of this system is that it takes advantage of the expertise developed by judges in certain areas. Sometimes cases may be assigned based on geographical considerations. Courts also have a system to check if there is any conflict that would make it improper for a judge to preside over a particular case.

Q: How do I file a complaint against a judge?

The complaint process is not intended to address complaints related to the merits of a case or a court's decision. Any person alleging that a judge of the United States has engaged in conduct prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts, or that such officer cannot discharge all the duties of the office because of physical or mental disability, may file a complaint with the clerk of the court of appeals for that circuit or applicable national court. The statute governing this complaint mechanism is set out at Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 351(a).

The Judicial Conference

Q: What is the Judicial Conference of the United States? When was it established?

The Conference of Senior Circuit Judges was created by Congress in 1922, to "serve as the principal policy making body concerned with the administration of the United States Courts." In 1948, Congress enacted Section 331 of Title 28, U.S. Code, changing the name to the Judicial Conference of the United States. District judges formally were added to the Conference in 1957.

Q: What are the duties and responsibilities of the Judicial Conference?

As in 1922, the fundamental purpose of the Judicial Conference today is to make policy with regard to the administration of the United States courts. Section 331 of Title 28 specifically provides that the Conference shall:

         make a comprehensive survey of the conditions of business in the courts of the United States;

         prepare plans for the assignment of judges to or from courts of appeals or district courts, where necessary;

         submit suggestions to the various courts in the interest of promoting uniformity of management procedures and the expeditious conduct of court business;

         exercise authority provided in 28 U.S.C. Section 372(c) for the review of circuit council conduct and disability orders filed under that section; and

         carry on a continuous study of the operation and effect of the general rules of practice and procedure in use within the federal courts, as prescribed by the Supreme Court pursuant to law.

The Judicial Conference also supervises the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in the performance of his duties as the administrative officer of the courts of the United States under 28 U.S.C. Section 604. In addition, certain statutes authorize the Judicial Conference to act in a variety of specific areas dealing with the administration of the courts.

The Chief Justice is required to submit to Congress an annual report of the proceedings of the Judicial Conference and its recommendations for legislation.

Q: Who are the members of the Judicial Conference?

The Chief Justice of the United States is the presiding officer of the Judicial Conference. Membership is comprised of the chief judge of each judicial circuit, the chief judge of the Court of International Trade, and a district judge from each regional judicial circuit, who is elected for a term of not less than three nor more than five successive years as established by majority vote of all circuit and district judges of the circuit represented (28 U.S.C. Section 331).

Q: When and where does the Judicial Conference meet?

The statute requires the Chief Justice to summon the Judicial Conference into session annually, at such time and place in the United States as he may designate. Traditionally the Chief Justice has convened two meetings of the Conference each year, one in September and one in March. The members are required to attend each session unless excused by the Chief Justice, who will then designate a replacement. The Conference generally meets in Washington, D.C.

Q: How does the Judicial Conference do its work?

The Conference operates through a network of committees created to address and advise on a wide variety of subjects, such as automation, personnel, probation and pretrial services, sentencing, space and security, and judicial salaries and benefits. The seven-member Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference serves as the senior executive arm of the Conference, acting on its behalf between sessions on matters requiring emergency action. Among it responsibilities, the Executive Committee reviews the jurisdiction of Conference committees, and establishes and publishes procedures for assembling Conference and committee agendas.

The Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts serves as Secretary to the Judicial Conference. The assistant director of the Office of the Judicial Conference Executive Secretariat in the Administrative Office coordinates administrative support to the Conference itself and its Executive Committee. The person in this position also coordinates the activities of the Executive Secretariat, which consists of senior members of the Administrative Office's professional staff, who dedicate all or a substantial portion of their time to the work of the Judicial Conference and its committees.


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