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About "Article III" Courts

THERE IS A PERSISTENT NOTION IN SOME CIRCLES that the United States District Court for the [] District of [] is not an actual "Article III" court-- that is, not a Constitutionally-authorized judicial-branch court. This notion is grounded in large part on a misunderstanding or mischaracterization of two Supreme Court rulings from early in the Twentieth Century, Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1921) and Mookini v. United States, 303 U.S. 201 (1938).

The misunderstanding of these cases appears to hinge on looking only at snippets from these cases, in which courts established in and for Puerto Pico and Hawaii (when still a territory) are discussed and labeled as ____,  leading to the erroneous conclusion that these rulings distinguish between "district courts of the United States" and "United States District Courts", with the former being "Article III" (judicial branch) courts and the latter being only Article IV ("territorial") courts. Actually read in context, these snippets, and the cases form which they are drawn, say nothing of the sort.

Further, Balzac and Mookini were not cases dealing directly with the issue of what each kind of court is labeled. There ARE some cases that DO deal directly with that question, which we'll look at to show that the distinction meant to be drawn from the snippets of Balzac and Mookini is incorrect.

Here is the portion excerpted and misrepresented from Mookini without the benefit of context:

The term 'District Courts of the United States,' as used in the rules, without an addition expressing a wider connotation, has its historic significance. It describes the constitutional courts created under article 3 of the Constitution. Courts of the Territories are legislative courts, properly speaking, and are not District Courts of the United States. We have often held that vesting a territorial court with jurisdiction similar to that vested in the District Courts of the United States does not make it a 'District Court of the United States.' Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 , 154; The City of Panama, 101 U.S. 453 , 460; In re Mills, 135 U.S. 263, 268 , 10 S.Ct. 762; McAllister v. United States, 141 U.S. 174, 182 , 183 S., 11 S.Ct. 949; Stephens v. Cherokee Nation, 174 U.S. 445, 476 , 477 S., 19 S.Ct. 722; Summers v. United States, 231 U.S. 92, 101 , 102 S., 34 S.Ct. 38; United States v. Burroughs, 289 U.S. 159, 163 , 53 S.Ct. 574. Not only did the promulgating order use the term District Courts of the United States in its historic and proper sense, but the omission of provision for the application of the rules to the territorial courts and other courts mentioned in the authorizing act clearly shows the limitation that was intended.

Here is what is omitted:

In order to aid the Court in exercising its authority under the statute, the Attorney General of the United States at the request of the Court submitted on May 26, 1933, a draft of proposed rules. These were expressly limited to proceedings in cases brought in the District Courts of the United States and in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The reason for this limitation was thus stated by the Attorney General: 'The Rules are limited in their application to proceedings in cases instituted in the District Courts of the United States and in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. There is not sufficient data at hand upon which to predicate proposals at this time relative to practice and procedure in cases instituted in the District Courts of Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Canal Zone, and Virgin Islands, or in the Supreme Courts of Hawaii and Puerto Rico, or in the United States Court for China. It is thought that it would be the part of wisdom to establish the rules for practice and procedure for Continental United States before attempting to provide for the Territories, Insular Possessions and Consular Courts, as these situations will undoubtedly require special treatment because of local conditions and the distance separating the trial court from the Appellate Court.'

 As can be seen, the court in Mookini was NOT saying that "district court of the United States refers only to "Article III" courts-- the phrase is also used to describe territorial (Article IV) courts.


The United States district court is not a true United States court established under Article III of the Constitution to administer the judicial power of the United States therein conveyed. It is created by virtue of the sovereign congressional faculty, granted under Article IV, § 3, of that instrument, of making all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States. The resemblance of its jurisdiction to that of true United States courts, in offering an opportunity to nonresidents of resorting to a tribunal not subject to local influence, does not change its character as a mere territorial court.

But of course the question arises: WHICH "United States district court" is being spoken of here, that is not "a true United States court established under Article III"? The excerpt is presented to suggest that the reference to "The United States district court" is a reference to any court that might be presented under that name, but looking a little more broadly into the ruling we find that:

These are two prosecutions for criminal libel, brought against the same defendant, Jesus M. Balzac, on informations filed in the District Court for Arecibo, Porto Rico, by the district attorney for that district. 

Thus, the "United States district court" to which the misrepresented snippet refers is "the District Court for Arecibo". The simple fact is, "district court of the United States" and "United States district court" are interchangeable terms, with Article III and Article IV courts both being known by either appellation. The distinction between an Article III variety and an Article IV variety can only be drawn by the specification of the location in which the court has jurisdiction.

NOW LET'S LOOK AT SOME RULINGS focusing on the distinctions. Here, for instance, is the US Supreme Court in Nguyen v. United States, No. 01-10873 (2003):

Petitioners were tried, convicted, and sentenced on federal narcotics charges in the District Court of Guam, a territorial court with subject matter jurisdiction over both federal-law and local-law causes. The Ninth Circuit panel convened to hear their appeals included two judges from that court, both of whom are life-tenured Article III judges, and the Chief Judge of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, an Article IV territorial-court judge appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for a 10-year term.


In light of the relevant statutory provisions and historical usage, it is evident that Congress did not contemplate the judges of the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands to be "district judges" within the meaning of 28 U. S. C. § 292(a), which authorizes the assignment of "one or more district judges within [a] circuit" to sit on the court of appeals "whenever the business of that court so requires." As used throughout Title 28, "district court" means a "'court of the United States'" "constituted by chapter 5 of this title." §451. Among other things, Chapter 5 creates a "United States District Court" for each judicial district, § 132(a), exhaustively enumerates the districts so constituted, § 133(a), and describes "district judges" as holding office "during good behavior," § 134(a). Significantly, the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands is not one of the enumerated courts, nor is it even mentioned in Chapter 5.

Then there is Mobley v. CIR, No. 07-2019 (Sixth Circuit, 2008), a case in which the issue was whether Tax Court has the authority to transfer a case to a federal district court-- something that can only be done between courts included in the definition of "courts" in 28 USC § 610:

As used in this chapter the word “courts” includes the courts of appeals and district courts of the United States, the United States District Court for the District of the Canal Zone, the District Court of Guam, the District Court of the Virgin Islands, the United States Court of Federal Claims, and the Court of International Trade.

 As the Mobley court observes:

The Tax Court also rejected the Mobleys' request to “transfer this case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky"...

[T]he court to which the Mobleys want the case transferred is a court as defined in § 610-namely, a “district court[ ] of the United States.”

So the Mobley court identifies the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky as a district court of the United States.

The court goes on to identify that court as an Article III court. Ruminating over whether the Tax Court's denial of the request, which was based on its conclusion that as an Article I court it was not among those in 28 USC § 610, was sound, the Mobley court identifies the Article of authority for each listed variety:

One might think, for example, that all of the “include[d]” courts listed in § 610 are Article III courts, which would exclude the Tax Court-an Article I court, see 26 U.S.C. § 7441. But that is not the case. The list also mentions an Article I court (the Court of Federal Claims, see 28 U.S.C. § 171(a)) and three Article IV courts (the district courts of the Canal Zone, of Guam and of the Virgin Islands...

So, as the Mobley court says, § 610 covers an Article I court (the Court of Federal Claims) and three Article IV courts (the district courts of the Canal Zone, Guam and the Virgin Islands) with all the others listed-- the courts of appeals and district courts of the United States (one of which is the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky) being Article III courts.