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Frequently Asked Questions

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Go to: Federal Judges | Court Information | Filing a Case | Juror Information | The Judicial Conference | Employment

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 are often recommended by senators or sometimes by members of the House who are of the President's political party. The Senate Judiciary Committee typically conducts confirmation hearings for each nominee. Article III of the Constitution states that these judicial officers are appointed for a life term. The federal Judiciary, the Judicial Conference of the United States, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts play no role in the nomination and confirmation process. 

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Q: How are new judgeships created?

Court of appeals and district court judgeships are created by legislation that must be enacted by Congress. 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. 

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

The Constitution sets forth no specific requirements. However, members of Congress, who typically recommend potential nominees, and the Department of Justice, which reviews nominees' qualifications, have developed their own informal criteria. 

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Q: How is a chief judge selected?

One is not nominated or appointed to the position of chief judge (except for the Chief Justice of the United States); they assume the position based on seniority. The same criteria exists for circuit and district chiefs. The chief judge is the judge in regular active service who is senior in commission of those judges who are (1) 64 years of age or under; (2) have served for one year or more as a judge; and (3) have not previously served as chief judge. 

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Q: What is a senior judge?

The "Rule of 80" is the commonly used shorthand for the age and service requirement for a judge to assume senior status, as set forth in Title 28 of the US. Code, Section 371(c). Beginning at age 65, a judge may retire at his or her current salary or take senior status after performing 15 years of active service as an Article III judge (65+15 = 80). A sliding scale of increasing age and decreasing service results in eligibility for retirement compensation at age 70 with a minimum of 10 years of service (70+10=80). Senior judges, who essentially provide volunteer service to the courts, typically handle about 15 percent of the federal courts' workload annually. 

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Q: What are bankruptcy judges? How are they appointed?

A U.S. bankruptcy judge is a judicial officer of the U.S. district court who is appointed by the majority of judges of the U.S. court of appeals to exercise jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters. The number of bankruptcy judges is determined by Congress. The Judicial Conference of the United States is required to submit recommendations from time to time regarding the number of bankruptcy judges needed. Bankruptcy judges are appointed for 14-year terms.

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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. The number of magistrate judge positions is determined by the Judicial Conference of the United States, based on recommendations of the respective district courts, the judicial councils of the circuits, and the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. A full-time magistrate judge serves a term of eight years. Duties assigned to magistrate judges by district court judges may vary considerably from court to court.

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Court Information

Q: How many courts of appeals are there?

There are 13 judicial circuits, each with a court of appeals. The smallest court is the First Circuit with six judgeships, and the largest court is the Ninth Circuit, with 29 judgeships. A list of the states that compose each circuit is set forth in Title 28 of the U.S. Code, Section 41. The number of judgeships in each circuit is set forth in Title 28 of the U.S. Code, Section 44. 

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Q: How many district courts are there?

There are 89 districts in the 50 states, which are listed with their divisions in Title 28 of the U.S. Code, Sections 81-144. District courts also exist in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In total there are 94 U.S. district courts. Some states, such as Alaska, are composed of a single judicial district. Others, such as California, are composed of multiple judicial districts. The number of judgeships allotted to each district is set forth in Title 28 of the U.S. Code, Section 133.

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Filing a Case

Q: How do I file a civil case? Is there a charge?

A civil action is commenced by the filing of a complaint. Parties instituting a civil action in a district court are required to pay a filing fee pursuant to Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 1914. The current fee is $350. Complaints may be accompanied by an application to proceed in forma pauperis, meaning that the plaintiff is incapable of paying the filing fee. Proceedings in forma pauperis are governed by Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 1915.

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Q: How do I file a criminal case?

Individuals do not file criminal charges in U.S. district courts. A criminal proceeding is initiated by the government, usually through the U.S. attorney's office in coordination with a law enforcement agency. Allegations of criminal behavior should be brought to local police, the FBI, or other appropriate law enforcement agency. 

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Q: How do I file for bankruptcy? Is there a charge?

A bankruptcy case is commenced by the filing of a petition. You must also file a statement of your assets and liabilities, and schedules listing your creditors. If you choose to file a bankruptcy petition without the assistance of an attorney, you can obtain the required forms at most stationery stores or at www.uscourts.gov.

Filing fees for bankruptcy cases vary, depending on the chapter of the bankruptcy code under which you file. Chapter 7, by far the most common form filed by individuals, involves an almost complete liquidation of the assets of the debtor, as well as a discharge of most debts. See Bankruptcy Basics

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Q: How can I find a lawyer?

In most districts, local bar associations or similar groups offer lawyer referral services, usually without charge. The clerk's office in your district court should be able to put you in touch with such a service. Many clerk's offices also have developed informational packets explaining filing procedures and listing sources of legal assistance. Personnel in the clerk's office and other federal court employees are prohibited from providing legal advice to individual litigants.

Defendants in criminal proceedings have a right to a lawyer, and are entitled by the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) to have counsel appointed at government expense if they are financially unable to obtain adequate representation by private counsel. The CJA, which is set forth in Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 3006A, requires a court determination that a person is financially eligible for court-appointed counsel. A court may determine that a defendant is partially eligible for court-appointed counsel and order the defendant to contribute to the cost of representation. Counsel assigned to a defendant may be a private lawyer, who is a member of the court's panel of attorneys receiving CJA appointments, or, in many districts, an attorney who works for a federal defender organization. The clerk's office has forms that can be used to apply for the appointment of counsel.

There is no right to free legal assistance in civil proceedings. Some litigants proceed pro se; that is, they represent themselves before the court.

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Q: How can I check on the status of my case? Can I review case files?

Your lawyer, who likely is familiar with local court practice, is your best resource. Generally, all documents filed with a court are public records and are available through the clerk's office. By way of exception, some documents are sealed by special court order, and some documents are confidential by operation of law, such as grand jury materials and criminal files relating to juveniles.

As the keeper of court records, the clerk's office responds to most inquiries on the status of a case once given the specific case name or docket number. In many courts, inquiries for information and requests to examine dockets, case files, exhibits, and other records are made at the intake area in the clerk's office. Inquiries often are made by phone. There is a $26 fee for every search of the records conducted by the clerk's office. A fee of $ .50 per page is assessed for reproducing any record or paper record or $ .10 per page, for printing copies of any records or document accessed electronically at the public access terminal in the courthouse.

Almost all federal courts have automated systems that allow for the search and retrieval of case-related information through personal computers at public counters and through an internet service called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). Electronic access to case-related information is available free of charge at the public counter in the clerk's office of most courts. The PACER service, which provides remote access to case-related information for registered users, currently assesses a fee of $.08 per page.

In many bankruptcy and appellate courts there also are telephone information systems, which enable callers to obtain basic case information through the use of a touch tone phone. These systems are provided free of charge, are available 24 hours a day, and have a toll free number for long distance service.

For more information, visit the PACER website.

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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 sentencings, 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, and for which 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. 

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Q: How are judges assigned to cases?

Judge assignment methods vary. The basic considerations in making assignments are to assure equitable distribution of caseloads 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. For example, in a large geographical area it may be best to assign a case to a judge located at the site where the case was filed. 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. 

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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). Each circuit court of appeals web site has information about how to file a complaint in that circuit.

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Juror Information

Q: How are jurors contacted for service in federal court?

Before potential jurors are summoned for service, their names are randomly drawn from voters lists (and sometimes drivers lists) to receive a questionnaire to determine whether they meet the legal qualifications for jury service. Individuals who receive questionnaires are required to complete and return them to the clerk's office, which then screens the completed questionnaires to determine eligibility for jury service. (In some courts, qualification questionnaires and summonses are mailed together.) More on Jury Service

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Q: Must I respond to my jury duty notice?

Yes, it is legally required, and there are penalties for noncompliance. Jurors perform a vital role in the American system of justice. Jury service is an important civic function that supports one of the fundamental rights of citizens - the right to have their cases decided by a jury of their peers. More on Jury Service

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Q: Who may serve as a juror?

The Jury Act, which is set out at Title 28, U.S. Code, Sections 1861-1878, calls for random selection of citizens' names from voters lists or from voter lists supplemented by additional sources (such as drivers lists). Because random selection is required, individuals may not volunteer for service. More on Jury Service

The Act states that individuals are legally disqualified from service:

  • if they are not a citizen of the United States 18 years old, who has resided for a period of one year within the judicial district;
  • if they are unable to read, write, and understand the English language with a degree of proficiency necessary to fill out a qualification form;
  • if they are unable to speak the English language;
  • if they are incapable by reason of mental or physical infirmity to render jury service; or
  • if they have felony charges pending against them punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, or they have been convicted of a felony and their civil rights have not been restored.

In addition, the Jury Act lists three groups that are exempt from federal jury service:

  • members of the armed forces on active duty;
  • members of professional fire and police departments; and
  • "public officers" of federal, state or local governments, who are actively engaged in the performance of public duties.

Persons belonging to these groups may not serve on federal juries, even if they so desire.

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Q: Will I be paid for jury service?

Yes, federal jurors are paid $40 a day. (Employees of the federal government are paid their regular salary in lieu of this fee.) In most courts, jurors also are reimbursed for reasonable transportation expenses and parking fees. More on Jury Service

Your employer may continue your salary during all or part of your jury service, but federal law does not require an employer to do so. Nonetheless, the Jury Act forbids any employer from firing, intimidating, or coercing any permanent employee because of their federal jury service. 

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Q: What if the dates of my jury service conflict with my work or vacation schedule?

The Jury Act allows courts to grant temporary deferrals of service on the grounds of "undue hardship or extreme inconvenience." The qualification questionnaire and juror summons provides specific information on how to request a deferral from your individual court. Whether to grant a deferral is a matter of discretion for the court and cannot be reviewed or appealed to Congress or any other entity. More on Jury Service

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Q: Why have some people never been called for jury duty?

Eligibility for federal jury service is dependent both upon an individual meeting the legal qualifications for service and upon the random chance of having one's name drawn from the source lists. More on Jury Service

Each judicial district must have a formal written plan for the selection of jurors, which provides for random selection from a fair cross-section of the community in the district, and which prohibits discrimination in the selection process. Voter records - either voter registration lists or lists of actual voters - are the required source of names for federal court juries. Some courts supplement voter lists with other sources, such as lists of licensed drivers. A copy of a district's jury plan is available for review in the clerk's office.

In addition, many courts offer excuses from service, on individual request, to designated groups of persons or occupational classes. Such groups may include persons over age 70; persons who have, within the past two years, served on a federal jury; and persons who serve as volunteer fire fighters or members of a rescue squad or ambulance crew.

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Q: May I volunteer for jury service?

While the federal courts appreciate your willingness in participating in jury service, you cannot volunteer to serve. Each judicial district must randomly select potential jurors from a fair cross-section of the community in the district, and discrimination in the selection process is prohibited. More on Jury Service

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Q: I lost my juror summons. How do I find out what court summoned me for jury service?

You may have been called to serve from your local federal court, or a state or other local court in your community. Unfortunately, there is not one place you can go to research the different court systems. To see if you’ve been called to serve on a federal jury, you must contact the local federal district court in your community. Find your local court using the Court Locator.

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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.

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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. 

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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). 

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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. 

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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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Q: Who are the committee members and how are they appointed?

The Chief Justice has sole authority to make committee appointments. The Director of the Administrative Office and the Assistant Director, Judicial Conference Executive Secretariat collate the expressed interests of judicial officers and their recommendations of others who may be considered for appointments, and the Director forwards the suggestions to the Chief Justice. Committee chairpersons may appoint subcommittees composed of members of the committee. Appointment of subcommittees composed of non-committee members requires the approval of the Chief Justice.

As a general rule, committee appointments are for a term of three years, subject to one reappointment. Terms are staggered to minimize turnover each year. Judges who desire committee service, or wish to recommend others for assignments, may make their interests or recommendations known at any time, in writing, to the Director of the Administrative Office. A permanent file is maintained for reference during the annual appointment process.

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Employment

Q: How do I find out about employment opportunities in the federal courts?

The federal court system's personnel decisions are decentralized. This means that each court unit does its own advertising and hiring for job positions. Court unit heads generally control the hiring within their office so that chief probation officers, staff attorneys, circuit executives, clerks of court, and circuit librarians each exercise such authority within their offices. Judges select and hire their own chambers staff. Some employment opportunities are available on this web site but often the clerk's office of the court of appeals, district, or bankruptcy court is the best source for a complete listing. The federal Judiciary is committed to the national policy of ensuring equal employment opportunity to all persons.

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