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Territorial Courts in the Federal Judiciary

February 28, 2011

The federal territorial courts – their rich history, varied caseloads, and dedicated judges – are a civic teacher’s dream. Their work involves powers found in the U.S. Constitution’s Articles I, III, and IV.

The first U.S. territory to receive its own federal court was the U.S. Virgin Islands, in 1937. The federal court in Guam was established in 1950; and the federal court in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands dates back to 1977. Each of those courts are presided over by Article I judges who are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate for fixed terms of 10 years.

Those three courts are designated as Article IV courts, so-called because under Article IV of the Constitution “Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the Territory or other property belonging to the United States.”

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has had, since 1966, its own Article III court, one of 94 district courts. Federal judges in Puerto Rico are appointed by the President and serve lifetime appointments as Article III judges.

American Samoa is, like Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory but it does not have a U.S. district court. The High Court of American Samoa has limited jurisdiction to hear cases under certain federal statutes, such as food safety, protection of animals, conservation, and shipping.