District of Columbia, Commonwealth, and Territorial Courts

The U.S. Supreme Court can only review final judgments rendered by the highest court of the state in which the case initiated.  Generally, all the remedies available in a state should be exhausted before approaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the District of Columbia, the judiciary consists of the Court of Appeals, which is the highest court in the state [i] and the Superior Court of District of Columbia, which is the trial court of general jurisdiction.

The District of Columbia Court Reform and Criminal Procedure Act of 1970 provides for a separate local court system after abolishing the district courts in the state.[ii] The Superior Court of District of Columbia hears all the criminal or civil cases arising in the District of Columbia.  The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has jurisdiction to review decisions of the Superior Court.  Pursuant to the Act, the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the cases from the District of Columbia Court of Appeals through a certiorari petition.[iii]

The highest court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.  The U.S. Supreme Court can review the final decisions of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico by a writ of certiorari.[iv] The U.S. Supreme Court can exercise its appellate jurisdiction under circumstances such as:

  • validity of a U.S. treaty or statute drawn is in question,[v]
  • constitutionality of the statute created by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is in question,
  • issue is related to any title, right, privilege, or immunity is specially set up or claimed under the U.S. Constitution.[vi]

The Supreme Court Rules implement the jurisdictional statute.  The jurisdictional statute deals with U.S. Supreme Court review of final judgments of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.[vii]

Congress established United States District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands, District of the Canal Zone, District Court of Guam, and District Court of the Virgin Islands as the territorial and insular courts of the U.S.

The Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over appeals from all final decisions of the U.S. District Court for the District of the Canal Zone, the District Court of Guam, and the District Court of the Virgin Islands (i.e., territorial courts).[viii] However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has no jurisdiction over the territorial and insular courts.  The U.S. Supreme Court reviews the decisions of the Court of Appeals.[ix] The U.S. Supreme Court also can directly review final decisions of the territorial courts.[x]

The final decisions of the District Court of the Northern Mariana Islands can be reviewed by the U.S. Courts of Appeals.[xi] However, the cases can be reviewed by the U.S. Courts of Appeals only if they are filed before May 1, 2004.  This is because after May 1, 2004, the relation between the courts of the Northern Mariana Islands and the federal judiciary is equivalent to the relationship between a state and the federal judiciary.[xii]

Pursuant to the Supreme Court Rules, the term ‘state court’ refers to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the courts of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the local courts of Guam.  Accordingly, the term ‘statute of the state’ includes all the statutes of the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the Territory of Guam.

[i] 28 USCS § 1257

[ii] Rieser v. District of Columbia, 580 F.2d 647 (D.C. Cir. 1978)

[iii] 28 USCS § 1257

[iv] 28 USCS § 1258

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Examining Bd. of Engineers, Architects & Surveyors v. Flores De Otero, 426 U.S. 572 (U.S. 1976)

[viii] 28 USCS § 1291

[ix] 28 USCS § 1291

[x] 28 USCS § 1254

[xi] 48 USCS § 1823

[xii] 48 USCS § 1824


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