Throughout the history of the federal government, Congress has established courts for the territories of the United States. Generally, these courts have exercised a combination of federal and local jurisdiction. The structure and authority of these courts have varied widely as a result of congressional responses to the challenges of establishing federal judicial authority in diverse areas.
In the early years of the federal government, Congress typically established for each territory a superior court with three judges appointed by the President. It also authorized the territorial government to establish other courts as necessary. In some territories, the superior court judges served during good behavior, and in others they served a fixed term of four years. In some territories, the judges served with the governor to enact laws until the territory’s population was large enough to qualify for an elected legislature. In the early nineteenth century, only in the Orleans Territory (later the state of Louisiana) did Congress establish a U.S. district court for an area organized as a territory. For all other territories, Congress in 1805 extended to the superior courts the authority to exercise the jurisdiction of federal district and circuit courts in all cases in which the federal government was concerned.
The act organizing the territorial government of Wisconsin in 1836 established a new model for territorial courts that Congress generally followed into the twentieth century. Congress created a four-tiered judicial system for Wisconsin, with a supreme court, three district courts, probate courts, and justices of the peace. The three judges of the supreme court were appointed by the President and in Wisconsin served during good behavior.
Beginning with the act organizing the territory of Iowa in 1838, territorial supreme court judges were appointed for four-year terms, and in 1884 Congress provided future territorial supreme courts with four justices. After 1836, these judges also presided over the territory’s district courts. The nineteenth-century territorial supreme courts were limited to appellate jurisdiction, and the district courts were granted the same jurisdiction as U.S. district and circuit courts in cases involving the federal government. The supreme and district courts of the territories possessed chancery and common-law jurisdiction. Territorial supreme court cases involving more than $1,000 could be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Congress made occasional revisions in this territorial court structure, particularly in territories outside the continental United States and in territories with large Indian populations.
There are currently three territorial courts within the federal system. The district courts of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands exercise the same jurisdiction as U.S. district courts, as well as local jurisdiction. Judges are appointed by the President and serve terms of ten years. The Virgin Islands district court is part of the Third Judicial Circuit, and the district courts of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are part of the Ninth Judicial Circuit. The U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico was a territorial court from its establishment in 1900 until 1966, when Congress provided that future judges appointed to the court would serve with the Article III protections of life tenure during good behavior and immunity from reductions in salary.
Blume, William Wirt, and Elizabeth Gaspar Brown, “Territorial Courts and Law,” Michigan Law Review 61 (1962–1963): 39–106, part 1; 467–538, part 2.