Detailed as they are, the legal duties of BJS do not explicitly mention the judicial processing of criminal trials. However, BJS’s general charge to statistically document the “operations of the criminal justice system at the Federal, State, and local levels” does clearly give BJS the mandate to generate statistics on the operations of the courts, because the courts are an integral part of the system. This is a task that is as difficult as it is unusual, from an operational standpoint: a small federal agency tasked with being a data collector on a separate branch of government with highly decentralized operations that vary greatly by locality.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution established the federal court system, specifically creating the U.S. Supreme Court and reserving to Congress the authority to create lower federal courts. The modern federal judiciary includes 94 U.S. District Courts and 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals, as well as U.S. Bankruptcy Courts and Courts of Claims and International Trade.11 The federal courts have primary jurisdiction in cases involving federal laws and treaties, as well as disputes between multiple states. Data from the federal court system are collected and disseminated by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The powers and areas of jurisdiction that are not explicitly assigned to the federal courts are the province of the state court system. Individual state constitutions and laws create the network of courts of original jurisdiction for civil and criminal cases, as well as appellate structures. States vary greatly in their court organizational structures, in the number of original courts, and in the number of appellate layers. Though many of the states have a single court of last resort (e.g., the state supreme court) and a single intermediate court of appeals, this is not a universal rule: as of 2007, 11 states have no intermediate court of appeals, so that appeals from district and other trial courts are appealed directly to the state supreme court.12 Likewise, some states have two courts of last resort, one for civil and one for criminal cases.

In addition to appellate structure, individual state court systems also vary in the degree to which specific legal matters are distributed to special-jurisdiction courts, such as family courts, juvenile courts, and probate courts.


The U.S. Court of Veterans’ Appeals, the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and the U.S. Tax Court are considered “Article I” or legislative courts because they have been created by Congress but are not vested with full judicial power to decide questions of federal and constitutional law.


Those 11 states are Delaware, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. In recent years, the Nevada Supreme Court has argued for the creation of an intermediate appellate court, given its steadily increasing workload and legal mandate to hear and consider all cases filed (Supreme Court of Nevada, 2007). Since 1999, the seven-member Supreme Court has dealt with its workload by dividing into three-judge panels, rotating between Carson City and Las Vegas, to hear many cases.

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