United States courts of appeals

United States courts of appeals
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The United States courts of appeals (or circuit courts) are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal court system. A court of appeals decides appeals from the district courts within its federal judicial circuit, and in some instances from other designated federal courts and administrative agencies.

The United States Courts of Appeals are considered among the most powerful and influential courts in the United States. Because of their ability to set legal precedent in regions that cover millions of people, the United States Courts of Appeals have strong policy influence on U.S. law; however, this political recognition is controversial. Moreover, because the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to hear fewer than 100 of the more than 10,000 cases filed with it annually, the United States Courts of Appeals serve as the final arbiter on most federal cases.

There are currently 179 Judges on the United States Courts of Appeals authorized by Congress and Article III of the U.S. Constitution. These judges are nominated by the President of the United States, and if confirmed by the United States Senate have lifetime tenure, earning an annual salary of $184,500.

There currently are thirteen United States courts of appeals, although there are other tribunals (such as the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which hears appeals in court-martial cases, and the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which reviews final decisions by the Board of Veterans' Appeals in the Department of Veterans Affairs) that have "Court of Appeals" in their titles. The eleven "numbered" circuits and the D.C. Circuit are geographically defined. The thirteenth court of appeals is the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has nationwide jurisdiction over certain appeals based on their subject matter. All of the courts of appeals also hear appeals from some administrative agency decisions and rulemaking, with by far the largest share of these cases heard by the D.C. Circuit. The Federal Circuit hears appeals from specialized trial courts, primarily the United States Court of International Trade and the United States Court of Federal Claims, as well as appeals from the district courts in patent cases and certain other specialized matters.

Decisions of the United States courts of appeals have been published by the private company West Publishing in the Federal Reporter series since the courts were established. Only decisions that the courts designate for publication are included. The "unpublished" opinions (of all but the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits) are published separately in West's Federal Appendix, and they are also available in on-line databases like Lexis or Westlaw. More recently, court decisions are also available electronically on the official Internet websites of the courts themselves. However, there are also a few federal court decisions that are classified for national security reasons.

The circuit with the smallest number of appellate judges is the First Circuit, and the one with the largest number of appellate judges is the geographically-large and populous Ninth Circuit in the Far West. The number of judges that the U.S. Congress has authorized for each circuit is set forth by law in 28 U.S.C. § 44.

Although the courts of appeals are frequently referred to as "circuit courts," they should not be confused with the former United States circuit courts, which were active from 1789 to 1911, during the time when long-distance transportation was much less available, and which were primarily first-level federal trial courts that moved periodically from place to place in "circuits" in order to serve the dispersed population in towns and the smaller cities that existed then.



Trials, at which witnesses and other evidence are presented to a jury or judge in order to determine the truth or facts regarding a particular case, are held only in courts with original jurisdiction, i.e., courts in which a lawsuit is originally (and properly) filed and which have the power to accept evidence from witnesses and make factual and legal determinations regarding the evidence presented. Such trial courts also determine what, if any, punishment (in criminal cases), or what damages (in civil cases) should be awarded. Because the courts of appeals possess only appellate jurisdiction, they do not hold trials. Instead, appeals courts review decisions of trial courts for errors of law. Accordingly, an appeals court considers only the record (that is, the papers the parties filed and the transcripts and any exhibits from any trial) from the trial court, and the legal arguments of the parties. These arguments, which are presented in written form, and can range in length from dozens to hundreds of pages, are ironically known as "briefs". Sometimes lawyers are permitted to add to their written briefs with oral arguments before the appeals judges. At such hearings, only the parties' lawyers speak to the court.

The rules that govern the procedure in the courts of appeals are the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. In a court of appeals, an appeal is almost always heard by a "panel" of three judges who are randomly selected from the available judges (including senior judges and judges temporarily assigned to the circuit). Some cases, however, receive an en banc hearing. Except in the Ninth Circuit Courts, the en banc court consists of all of the circuit judges who are on active status, but it does not include the senior or assigned judges (except that under some circumstances, a senior judge may participate in an en banc hearing when he or she participated at an earlier stage of the same case).

Many decades ago, certain classes of federal court cases held the right of an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. That is, one of the parties in the case could appeal a decision of a court of appeals to the Supreme Court, and it had to accept the case. The right of automatic appeal for most types of decisions of a court of appeals was ended by an Act of Congress, the Judiciary Act of 1925. This law was urged by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, and it also reorganized many other things in the federal court system.

The current procedure is that a party in a case may apply to the Supreme Court to review a ruling of the circuit court. This is called petitioning for a writ of certiorari, and the Supreme Court may choose, in its sole discretion, to review any lower court ruling. In extremely rare cases, the Supreme Court may grant the writ of certiorari before the judgment is rendered by the court of appeals, thereby reviewing the lower court's ruling directly. For example, this procedure was used in the Watergate scandal-related case, United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), and in the 2005 decision involving the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).

A court of appeals may also pose questions to the Supreme Court for a ruling in the midst of reviewing a case. This procedure was formerly used somewhat commonly, but now it is quite rare. The Second Circuit, sitting en banc, attempted to use this procedure in the case United States v. Penaranda, as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington. 28 U.S.C. § 1254(2), but the Supreme Court dismissed the question after resolving the same issue in another case, which had come before the Court through the standard procedure. The last instance of the Supreme Court accepting a set of questions and answering them was in a case in 1982.

A court of appeals may convene a Bankruptcy Appellate Panel to hear appeals in bankruptcy cases directly from the bankruptcy court of its circuit. As of 2008, only the First, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have established a Bankruptcy Appellate Panel. Those circuits that do not have a Bankruptcy Appellate Panel have their bankruptcy appeals heard by the District Court.

Court of appeals decisions, unlike those of the lower federal courts, establish binding precedents. Other federal courts in that circuit must, from that point forward, follow the appeals court's guidance in similar cases, regardless of whether the trial judge thinks that the case should be decided differently.

Federal and state laws can and do change from time-to-time, depending on the actions of Congress and the state legislatures. Therefore the law that exists at the time of the appeal might be different from the law that existed at the time of the events that are in controversy under civil or criminal law in the case at hand. A court of appeals applies the law as it exists at the time of the appeal, otherwise it would be handing down decisions that would be instantly obsolete, and this would be a waste of time and resources, since such decisions could not be cited as precedent. "[A] court is to apply the law in effect at the time it renders its decision, unless doing so would result in manifest injustice, or there is statutory direction or some legislative history to the contrary." Bradley v. Richmond Sch. Bd., 416 U.S. 696, 711-12 (1974).

However, the above rule cannot apply in criminal cases if the effect of applying the newer law would be to create an ex post facto law to the detriment of the defendant.


In order to serve as counsel in a case appealed to a circuit court the attorney must be admitted to the bar of that circuit. Admission to the bar of a circuit court is granted as a matter of course to any attorney who is admitted to practice law in any state of the United States. The attorney submits an application, pays a fee, and takes the oath of admission. Local practice varies as to whether the oath is given in writing or in open court before a judge of the circuit, and most courts of appeals allow the applicant attorney to choose which method he or she prefers.


When the courts of appeals were created in 1891, one was created for each of the nine circuits then existing, and each court was named the "United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the _____ Circuit". When a court of appeals was created for the District of Columbia in 1893, it was named the "Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia", and it was renamed to the "United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia" in 1934. In 1948, Congress renamed all of the courts of appeals then existing to their current formal names: the court of appeals for each numbered circuit was named the "United States Court of Appeals for the _____ Circuit", and the "United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia" became the “United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit". The Tenth Circuit was created in 1929 by subdividing the existing Eighth Circuit, and the Eleventh Circuit was created in 1981 by subdividing the existing Fifth Circuit. The Federal Circuit was created in 1982 by the merger of the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the appellate division of the United States Court of Claims.

Circuit composition

Federal Circuit (Washington)

D.C. Circuit (Washington)

  • District of Columbia

1st Circuit (Boston)

2nd Circuit (New York)

3rd Circuit (Philadelphia)

4th Circuit (Richmond)

5th Circuit (New Orleans)

6th Circuit (Cincinnati)

7th Circuit (Chicago)

8th Circuit (St. Louis)

9th Circuit (San Francisco)

10th Circuit (Denver)

11th Circuit (Atlanta)

Circuit population

Based on 2008 U.S. census estimates, the population residing in each circuit is as follows.

Circuit Authorized Judges Population Percentage of U.S. Pop.
D.C. Circuit 11 591,833 0.19
1st circuit 6 14,135,057 4.58
2nd Circuit 13 23,612,819 7.66
3rd Circuit 14 22,112,480 7.17
4th Circuit 15 28,919,368 9.38
5th Circuit 17 31,676,388 10.27
6th Circuit 16 31,973,465 10.37
7th Circuit 11 24,906,322 8.08
8th Circuit 11 20,219,050 6.56
9th Circuit 29 60,920,046 19.75
10th Circuit 12 16,637,399 5.40
11th Circuit 12 32,675,984 10.60


The Judiciary Act of 1789 established three circuits, which were groups of judicial districts in which United States circuit courts were established. Each circuit court consisted of two Supreme Court justices and the local district judge; the three circuits existed solely for the purpose of assigning the justices to a group of circuit courts. Some districts (generally the ones most difficult for an itinerant justice to reach) did not have a circuit court; in these districts the district court exercised the original jurisdiction of a circuit court. As new states were admitted to the Union, Congress often did not create circuit courts for them for a number of years.

The Judiciary Act of 1801 reorganized the districts into six circuits, and created circuit judgeships so that Supreme Court justices would no longer have to ride circuit. This Act, however, was repealed in March 1802, and Congress provided that the former circuit courts would be revived as of July 1 of that year. But it then passed the new Judiciary Act of 1802 in April, so that the revival of the old courts never took effect. The 1802 Act restored circuit riding, but with only one justice to a circuit; it therefore created six new circuits, but with slightly different compositions than the 1801 Act. These six circuits later were augmented by others. Until 1866, each new circuit (except the short-lived California Circuit) was accompanied by a newly-created Supreme Court seat.

State Judicial District(s) created Circuit assignment(s)
New Hampshire 1789 Eastern, 1789–1801
1st, 1801–
Massachusetts 1789 Eastern, 1789–1801
1st, 1801-
Maine 1789[Note 1] 1st, 1801–1802
1st, 1820–
Rhode Island 1790 Eastern, 1790–1801
1st, 1801-
Connecticut 1789 Eastern, 1789–1801
2nd, 1801-
New York 1789 Eastern, 1789–1801
2nd, 1801-
New Jersey 1789 Middle, 1789–1801
3rd, 1801-
Pennsylvania 1789 Middle, 1789–1801
3rd, 1801-
Delaware 1789 Middle, 1789–1801
3rd, 1801–1802
4th, 1802–1866
3rd, 1866–
Maryland 1789 Middle, 1789–1801
4th, 1801-
Virginia 1789 Middle, 1789–1801
4th, 1801–1802
5th, 1802–1842
4th, 1842–
Kentucky 1789[Note 2] 6th, 1801–1802
7th, 1807–1837
8th, 1837–1863
6th, 1863–
North Carolina 1790 Southern, 1790–1801
5th, 1801-1842
6th, 1842–1863
4th, 1863–
South Carolina 1789 Southern, 1789–1801
5th, 1801–1802
6th, 1802–1863
5th, 1863-1866
4th, 1866-
Georgia 1789 Southern, 1789–1801
5th, 1801–1802
6th, 1802–1863
5th, 1863–1981
11th, 1981–
Vermont 1791 Eastern, 1791–1801
2nd, 1801-
Tennessee 1796 6th, 1801–1802
7th, 1807–1837
8th, 1837–1863
6th, 1863–
Ohio 1801 (abolished 1802)[Note 3] 6th, 1801–1802
Ohio 1803 7th, 1807-1866
6th, 1866–
Louisiana 1812 9th, 1837–1842 (Eastern District)
5th, 1842-1863
6th, 1863–1866
5th, 1866–
Indiana 1816 7th, 1837–
Mississippi 1817 9th, 1837–1863
5th, 1863–
Illinois 1818 7th, 1837–1863
8th, 1863-1866
7th, 1866–
Alabama 1819 9th, 1837–1842
5th, 1842–1981
11th, 1981–
Missouri 1821 8th, 1837–1863
9th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–
Arkansas 1836 9th, 1837–1851
9th, 1851–1863 (Eastern District)
6th, 1863–1866 (Eastern District)
8th, 1866–
Michigan 1837 7th, 1837–1863
8th, 1863–1866
6th, 1866–
Florida 1845 5th, 1863–1981
11th, 1981–
Texas 1845 6th, 1863–1866
5th, 1866–
Iowa 1846 9th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–
Wisconsin 1848 8th, 1863–1866
7th, 1866–
California 1850 California Circuit, 1855–1863
10th, 1863–1866
9th, 1866–
Minnesota 1858 9th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–
Oregon 1859 10th, 1863–1866
9th, 1866–
Kansas 1861 9th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–1929
10th, 1929–
West Virginia 1863 4th, 1863–
Nevada 1864 9th, 1866–
Nebraska 1867 8th, 1867–
Colorado 1876 8th, 1876–1929
10th, 1929–
North Dakota 1889 8th, 1889–
South Dakota 1889 8th, 1889–
Montana 1889 9th, 1889–
Washington 1889 9th, 1889–
Idaho 1890 9th, 1890–
Wyoming 1890 8th, 1890–1929
10th, 1929–
Utah 1896 8th, 1896–1929
10th, 1929–
Oklahoma 1907 8th, 1907–1929
10th, 1929–
New Mexico 1912 8th, 1912–1929
10th, 1929–
Arizona 1912 9th, 1912–
District of Columbia 1948[Note 4] District of Columbia Circuit, 1948–
Alaska 1959 9th, 1959–
Hawaii 1959 9th, 1959–
Puerto Rico 1966[Note 5] 1st, 1966–
Virgin Islands
Philippines 1898[Note 6]
Panama Canal Zone[Note 7]


  1. ^ The Judiciary Act of 1789 divided Virginia into the Kentucky District, comprising what is now the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and the Virginia District, comprising the remainder of the state.
  2. ^ The Judiciary Act of 1789 divided Massachusetts into the Maine District, comprising what is now the State of Maine, and the Massachusetts District, comprising the remainder of the state.
  3. ^ The first District of Ohio encompassed the Northwest and Indiana Territories.
  4. ^ The pre-existing courts of the District of Columbia were elevated to United States district court and court of appeals status in 1948. The courts of the District had been incorporated into the Federal Court System by the Judiciary Act of 1925.
  5. ^ The pre-existing territorial district court of Puerto Rico was elevated to United States district court status. Appellate jurisdiction from the Puerto Rico courts was assigned to the 1st Circuit in 1915.
  6. ^ There were U.S. Federal Courts in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War of 1898 up through the granting of independence to the Philippines on July 4, 1946 - with the exception of the Philippine occupation by the Japanese Army in 1942 - 45.
  7. ^ There were formerly U.S. Federal Courts in the Panama Canal Zone, until that Zone was returned to Panama by treaty on December 31, 1999.

See also

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