What is a District Court?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 23 December 2019
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A district court is a court that is part of the United States federal court system, in which the majority of cases take place. There is at least one district court in every state, as well as in the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. There are 91 district courts in all, with California, New York, and Texas having the most, with four district courts for each state.

Criminal and civil cases may be tried in a district court, as long as they meet certain requirements. A district court may hear a case in which the dispute is over an incident that occurred at sea or within the maritime jurisdiction. They may hear a case in which the defendant and the plaintiff reside in different states, or in which one of the members is an alien resident, but only if the amount of controversy is in excess of 75,000 US dollars (USD). They may also hear a case that more obviously falls under federal jurisdiction, such as one in which the United States is the plaintiff or defendant, one in which a federal employee is a defendant, or one in which the issue being brought to trial is regarding a federal, and not a state, law.


The judges on a district court are appointed by the President, and appointed for life. The number of judges that serve on any given district court is set by Congress. There is a popular tradition in which the senior senator, if he or she is from the same party as the President, may exercise a non-traditional veto over a nominee, known as a senatorial courtesy.

At the discretion of a district judge, a case deemed routine may be given to a magistrate judge to be handled. Magistrate judges are not appointed, but rather hired, and may be fired, by the district judge. District judges make use of magistrate judges to help manage the workload of the district court, with their duties and responsibilities shifting as appropriate.

Cases that have been brought before a district court may be generally appealed to the United States court of appeals or in the appropriate federal circuit. In some exceptional cases, the appeal process instead goes straight to the United States Supreme Court. To practice law before a district court, an attorney usually only needs to have passed the bar of the state in which the district is located, and to have submitted an application and sworn an oath.


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Post 3

I found out the hard way that if you want to fight a traffic ticket you got on a military base, you have to go to federal court. So it isn't always big important cases that end up there. That was a major pain. I got the ticket about 40 miles away from the court, and I had to make my way down there to get a hearing, which I lost.

I guess next time I'll just pay it.

Post 2

@Nepal2016 - I know what you mean about district court cases being more interesting. That is why I worked really hard to get a job as a law clerk for a federal judge when I got out of law school. The cases I got to review were really interesting and complicated, and I got to know most of the well-regarded lawyers in my area as they passed through the court.

Also, having that connection to your influential former boss, who as you said will be around a long time ever hurts. Federal clerkships are very competitive for this reason, and they often lead to a great job either in a law firm or an academic setting.

Post 1

Before I went to law school, I used to go sit in the U.S. District Court in downtown Detroit and watch cases. It is very interesting because you get such a range of different issues and the people are from all over. It seemed like the things they were arguing about were more complicated.

I remember getting a very good piece of advice from one of my professors: Don't make a federal judge angry if you can help it, because they are going to be in that courtroom for the rest of their life, and you will be trying cases in front of the same guy for many years.

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