Legislative Branch

Congress Creates the Federal Court System


Students will analyze the Judiciary Act of 1789 to learn the origin of the Federal court system.  Article III of the Constitution empowered Congress to create Federal courts, but gave no details on the court system. Congress filled in the details and established the third branch of government by writing this legislation.


The organization of the Federal court system today is descended from the system created in the Judiciary Act of 1789. Analyzing the original design introduces students to how the Federal court system is structured.

Guiding Question:

What was the design of the Federal court system Congress created in 1789?


5 Worksheets
5 Worksheet Answer Keys

Recommended Grade Level:



Civics, Government, U.S. History


The Federal Judiciary, Federalism, the First Congress, the Judiciary Act of 1789

Time Required:

Two 45-minute periods


appeal and appellate, civil case, concurrent, criminal case, forfeiture, jurisdiction, oath and affirmation, petitioner, plaintiff, suit, testimony, writ
(See list of definitions below.)

Learning Activities:

Activity 1: Analyzing excerpts from the Judiciary Act of 1789

  1. Divide the class into 3 groups.
  2. Copy and distribute the following: 
  3. Instruct each group to work collaboratively to complete their assigned worksheets. 

Activity 2: Mapping the Federal Court System as Established by the First Congress

  1. Copy and distribute to each student an 81/2 X 11 copy of Worksheet 4.
  2. Complete Worksheet 4 in one of the following ways:
    • As a collaborative group activity: Print or project a large version of Worksheet 4, and instruct each group to draw from their findings on Worksheets 1 – 3 to complete the appropriate column.
    • As a “jigsaw” activity: Create new small groups of three with one student in each group representing one of the groups used in the prior step of the lesson. Instruct the students in each new small group to work collaboratively to complete Worksheet 4.
  3. Project a blank copy of Worksheet 4 and instruct students to share their findings in a class review.

Activity 3: Reflection Questions

  1. Copy and distribute to each student a copy of Worksheet 5.
  2. Instruct students to work individually to complete Worksheet 5.
  3. Invite students to share responses with the whole class.
  4. Instruct students to work individually to summarize the discussion as directed on Worksheet 5.

Note: We recommend that students be introduced to the Constitution by completing Activity 1 of the lesson Teaching 6 Big Ideas in the Constitution before working on this lesson. 

Vocabulary Definitions:

appeal and appellate: In law, an appeal is the process in which cases are reviewed, where parties request a formal change to an official decision. Appellate is the adjective form of appeal.
civil case: legal cases seeking monetary damages for actions such as breach of contract or slander
criminal case: when a person suspected of a crime is indicted by a grand jury or otherwise charged with the offense by a government official called a prosecutor or district attorney
concurrent: happening at the same time
forfeiture: when a person gives up money, property, or privileges to compensate for losses resulting from a breach of a legal judgment 
jurisdiction: a court’s official power to make legal decisions and judgments 
oath or affirmation: an oath is a promise, often calling upon God as a witness, regarding one's future action or behavior. An affirmation is a promise allowed to those who object to calling upon God as a witness 
petitioner: a person who presents a formal, written application to a court, officer, or legislative body that requests action
plaintiff: a person who brings a case against another in a court of law
suit: any formal action asking for legal response by a court, often called a "lawsuit"
testimony: a formal written or spoken statement, especially one given in a court of law
writ: a written command in the name of a court