Federal court

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A federal court is any of a system of trial and appellate courts that resolves issues arising under the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and disputes between different states and, where the controversy exceeds $75,000, citizens of different states. They are organized as follows:

The 14th Amendment imposed new and vague limits on state sovereignty, and gave Congress broad power to implement those limits. Congress exercised that power by, among other things, vastly expanding the jurisdiction of the federal courts.

Between 1789, when the federal court system was first established by Congress, and about 1870 this system lacked the power to hear cases arising under the U.S. Constitution and laws passed by Congress. Instead, state courts handled those disputes in addition to all other intrastate disputes. Only around 1870 did Congress give "federal question" jurisdiction to the federal courts and begin to allow lawsuits in federal court against state and local government officials to recover money for alleged deprivation of federal rights.

In 1976, a new conservative majority, including four Justices appointed by President Richard Nixon issued a 5-4 decision limiting federal power in favor of state sovereignty.[2]

In 1985, Justice Harry Blackmun switched sides and a 5-4 Court decision reversed the precedent, causing Justice William Rehnquist to promise in dissent that the state's rights "principle that will, I am confident, in time again command the support of a majority of this Court."[3]

Justice Rehnquist was right. After he became Chief Justice, in the late 1990s a series of 5-4 decisions reestablished limits on federal power in favor of state sovereignty.


  1. Federal Courts, from the United States Courts Web site
  2. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0426_0833_ZS.html
  3. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0469_0528_ZS.html