United States court of appeals

United States court of appeals

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.

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) that have “Court of Appeals” in their titles. The eleven “numbered” circuits and the D.C. Circuit are geographically defined. The thirteenth court of appeal is the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has nationwide jurisdiction over certain appeals based on 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 U.S. courts of appeals have been published by the private company West Publishing in the "Federal Reporter" series since the courts were established. Not every court decision is available, however. Only decisions that the courts designate for publication are included; “unpublished” opinions (of all but the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits) are nevertheless included in West's "Federal Appendix", and are also available in online databases like Lexis or Westlaw. More recently, case decisions are also available electronically on the official websites of the courts themselves.

The circuit with the smallest number of appellate judges is the First Circuit, and the one with the most is the Ninth Circuit. The number of judges Congress has authorized for each circuit is set forth in usc|28|44.

Although the courts of appeals are frequently referred to as “circuit courts”, they should not be confused with the historical United States circuit courts, which existed from 1789 to 1911 and were primarily trial courts.


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 paradoxically 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, the "en banc" court consists of all circuit judges on active status, but does not include 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).

Historically, certain classes of cases held a right of automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States; that is, one of the parties to the case could appeal a decision of a court of appeals and the Supreme Court had to accept the case. There is no longer any right of automatic appeal for a decision of a court of appeals, but a party may apply to that court to review a ruling of the circuit court—called petitioning for a writ of certiorari—and the Supreme Court may, in its discretion, review any such ruling. In extremely rare cases, the Supreme Court may grant certiorari before judgment, thereby removing a case from the court of appeals and reviewing the lower court's ruling directly. This procedure was used in the Watergate-related case, "United States v. Nixon", ussc|418|683|1974, and in the 2005 decision involving the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, "United States v. Booker", ussc|543|220|2005.

A court of appeals may also certify questions to the Supreme Court. This procedure was formerly used on occasion but is now rare. The Second Circuit, sitting "en banc", attempted to use this procedure in "United States v. Penaranda", as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in "Blakely v. Washington". uscsub|28|1254|2, but the Supreme Court dismissed the certificate after resolving the same issue in another case that had come to the Court through the standard procedure. The last instance of the Supreme Court accepting a certificate and answering the questions presented was in 1982.

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

Appeals court decisions, unlike trial court decisions, are binding precedent. Other courts in that circuit must, from that point forward, follow the appellate court's guidance in similar cases, regardless of whether the trial judge believes that the case should be decided differently.

Laws may change over time, therefore the law that exists at the time of the appeal may differ from the law that existed at the time of the events being disputed by the litigants. A court of appeals applies the law as it exists at the time of the appeal, otherwise it would be handing down decisions that were instantly obsolete, and this would be a waste of 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 legislative history to the contrary.” "Bradley v. Richmond Sch. Bd.", 416 U.S. 696, 711-12 (1974). This rule does not, however, apply in criminal cases if the effect would be to create an "ex post facto" law.


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. The United States does not have a separate bar examination for federal practice (except with respect to patent law). 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.

Circuit composition

See also

* List of notable United States courts of appeals cases
* State supreme court
* Federal judicial appointment history#United States court of appeals summary

External links

* [http://www.uscourts.gov/courtsofappeals.html Official site of the United States Courts]
* [http://www.catea.org/grade/legal/circuits.html Federal Court Concepts, Georgia Tech]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Игры ⚽ Поможем написать курсовую

Look at other dictionaries:

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”