There seems to be a wide variety of structures concerning Article I tribunals in the US federal court system.
There are things like the Board of Patent Appeals which is part of the US Patent and Trademark Office and would therefore seem to be a part of the executive branch. But there’s also things like the US Tax Court and US Bankruptcy Court which seem to be totally independent bodies, quite similar to US District Courts, despite their Article I status.
So what’s the deal with these things?
Also, are all decisions of Article I tribunals appealable to an Article I court, or only those involving criminal matters (such as courts-martial and whatnot.)
I think the strict constitutional formulation is that final judicial authority arises only from Article III. Thus, every Article I tribunal must be appealable to an Article III court at some stage of the process. I don’t know if there’s a principled reason why some tribunals get appealed to a District Court while others go directly to a Court of Appeals. Even most military tribunals are eventually appealable to the Supreme Court, albeit with some unusual restrictions.
I don’t think criminal vs. civil is a relevant distinction. If I’m not mistaken, there are no Article I courts with criminal jurisdiction, other than military tribunals.
As you indicate, most administrative Article I courts are part of the Executive Branch, but this classification gets a little dicey for some of these courts:
[li]The Tax Court was originally part of the Treasury Department before being made into an “independent” agency. [/li][li]Bankruptcy Judges and Magistrate Judges are Article I, but they are overseen by the Administrative Office for the US Courts, and they technically operate as some sort of adjunct to the district courts. If I’m not mistaken, in theory, all matters heard by those judges have been referred by the district court, if only by a general standing order. [/li][li]The Court of Federal Claims is Article I and administered by the AO, but its jurisdiction is independent and not “referred” by the district court.[/li][li]The Court of International Trade, perhaps unexpectedly, is an Article III court.[/li][/ul]
For the non-lawyers: The essential distinction is that Article III judges (those whose powers arise from Article III of the Constitution) are appointed for life, and are thus theoretically immune from influence by the other branches of the federal government. Article I judges (whose courts are created pursuant to Congress’ Article I powers) are appointed for a fixed term of years.
To answer this question, we probably should start with the text of the Constitution:
Article III requires a Supreme Court and “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Congress, under Art. I, sec. 8 has the power “To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court.” Note that Congress has the power to establish “tribunals”, a term including but broader than the “courts” discussed in Art. III. All Article III judges serve “during good Behavior”, or in other words, until they resign, die or are impeached.
Congress has established three types of inferior courts under Art. III, the Courts of Appeal, the District Courts, and the Court of International Trade (about which more later). The Courts of Appeal mostly handle appeals from District Courts and are organized into 12 regional “Circuits” plus one “Federal Circuit”, which handles certain appeals from around the country, including all appeals from District Courts on patent matters , appeals from the Court of International Trade, and appeals from certain Article I courts (though not the Tax Court, which go to the taxpayer’s local Court of Appeal). All Circuit Judges are appointed by the President, with Senate confirmation, for life.
The Art. III District Courts are the trial level federal courts of general jurisdiction, which means that most federal litigation starts in them. US District Judges are Article III judges, meaing that they are appointed by the President, subject to Senate confirmation, for life. However, the Art. II, sec. 2 provides that “Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, . . . in the Courts of Law.” In addition to court clerks and other similar personnel, Congress has established two types of inferior judicial officers within the District Courts, Magistrate Judges and Bankruptcy Judges. Magistrate Judges are sort of assistant judges that handle things like (on the criminal side) arraignments, warrants and misdemeanors; and (on the civil side) pretrial discovery disputes, other specific matters when referred by the District Judge, and full trials only where all parties agree to having the Magistrate Judge hear the matter. Magistrate Judges are appointed by the courts for a 10 year term, which may be renewed.
The Bankruptcy Judges are administratively organized into Bankruptcy Courts, but each Bankruptcy Court is legally an adjunct of the District Court where it is located. All District Courts (I believe) have a standing order that all bankruptcy matters in the District will be referred to the Bankruptcy Court. (In fact, before 1978, Bankruptcy Judges were known as “referees in bankruptcy” because bankruptcy matters were referred to them by the District Courts. Bankruptcy Judges are appointed by the courts for a 14 year term, which may be renewed. Bankruptcy decisions are appealed to District Court judges, except in some circuits there are “Bankruptcy Appellate Panels” for review of bankruptcy law questions and from which appeal may be taken to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of International Trade, based in New York City but handling matters nationwide, has jurisdiction over matters of customs and international trade. Although its predecessor was originally established an Article I court, it was made an Article III court in 1956, and its Judges are appointed by the President, with Senate consent, for life. (As a side note, under the law, any Article III judge can be temporarily assigned to another Article III court except the Supreme Court. District Judges regularly sit on Court of Appeals panels, and Court of International Trade judges often cover matters from the Manhattan District Court.)
Under Article I, Congress has control over the rules for governance of the armed forces, and has established the military justice system. Military commanders hold courts martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Court martial verdicts may be appealed to the the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard or Navy/Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, as appropriate. Decisions of the service Courts of Criminal Appeal may be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the higest military appellate court. Although this was not always the case, decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces may be reviewed by the US Supreme Court under a writ of certiorari, though I believe the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in an armed forces case only once.
Also under Article I are the “local” court system in the District of Columbia (the DC Superior Court and DC Court of Appeals) and the territorial courts.
This leaves the remaining Article I courts, the US Court of Federal Claims, the US Tax Court and US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (and depending on how broadly you stretch the term “court”, various adminstrative appeal boards and tribunals). The Court of Federal Claims is for claims money damages against the federal government (other than for torts like personal injury and negligence). The Tax Court hears questions of federal taxation (which also may be brought in the District Courts or Court of Federal Claims, though if you make a Tax Court claim you don’t have to pay the disputed tax in advance). The Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims hears appeals over veterans affairs claims. All of these courts determine adminstrative claims against the federal government, as opposed to “cases” involving other parties, so it is not necessary for them to be heard by Article III courts.
This hodge-podge of courts results from Congress’s desire to have specialized tribunals to hear certain types of claims while leaving the general judicial authority within the Article III court system (as required by the Constitution). Ultimately, the decisions of all of the Article I tribunals can eventually get up into the Article III court system, though at different places depending on the tribunal. As with anything, the growth of the various judicial and administrative tribunals was governed as much or more by politics than by any strictly logical or legal determination of what types of cases should be determined where.