Federal Courts of Appeal
Why Circuit Courts?
The twelve United States Courts of Appeal are traditionally known as "circuit courts". After the Supreme Court was formed, it was expected that Supreme Court justices would travel around the country twice a year visiting a "circuit" of courts in different states. Unfortunately, travel was a slow and difficult process in the late 18th century, and the Justices found it difficult to leave Washington on a regular basis. Although Congress passed several laws creating new courts, Supreme Court justices continued to ride the circuit until 1891, when Congress created the Circuit Courts of Appeal. In 1948, the official name was changed to United States Courts of Appeal.
The concept of a judicial "circuit" still lives on today. Each of the twelve Courts of Appeal covers its own individual circuit. For example, the United States Court of Appeal for the Eleventh Circuit handles cases from the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The judges of the Eleventh Circuit hear most cases in the court's principal office in Atlanta, Georgia. However, in keeping with the tradition of the circuit court system, the Eleventh Circuit hears cases occasionally in Jacksonville, Florida, Miami, Florida, and Montgomery, Alabama.
Circuit Court Structure
This map shows the boundaries of the twelve circuit courts. Eleven circuit courts handle more than one state. The twelfth circuit court is the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which meets in Washington, D.C. The map is accompanied by alternative text -- available through a mouse-over for most users -- which shows the postal abbreviations for each state in each circuit, as well as the city where the circuit court is headquartered.
Each circuit has a limited number of judgeships, set by Congress. The First Circuit, made up of the eastern New England states, has the fewest, with six circuit judges. The Ninth Circuit, consisting of nine Western states, has the most, 28 circuit judges.
Role of the Circuit Courts
The circuit courts are intermediate appellate courts. The circuit courts do not handle jury trials. They only handle cases where a party argues that a district court judge made an error in handling their case. For example, if a jury verdict goes against a party, the party cannot directly appeal the verdict, because a jury verdict is final. However, a party may base their appeal on a perceived error by the judge -- in other words, the losing party may argue that the judge approved improper jury instructions, or ruled that a vital piece of evidence was inadmissible. Circuit courts review the work of district court judges -- applying one of several "standards of review" -- and issue decisions based on whether or not the lower court's decision was right or not.
In order to decide the merits of an appeal, circuit court judges rely on documents called "briefs". Each party to an appeal submits a brief to the court which outlines the legal arguments at issue. The circuit court judges review the briefs. In some cases, the judges will issue a decision based on their review of the briefs. In other cases, the judges will schedule an "oral argument" session, where the attorneys for the parties argue the cases before the judges, and give the judges the opportunity to ask questions about their arguments.
Initially, every case at the circuit court level is handled by a panel of three judges. (Occasionally, a retired judge on "senior status" or a district court judge will participate on a panel.) Most decisions are issued by these panels. However, a party may ask for a rehearing by a panel consisting of all the circuit court judges. This sort of panel is known as an en banc panel.
Splits Among Circuit Courts
Frequently, situations will come up where one circuit court panel rules differently from another panel in another circuit on the same issue. Federal judges will generally rule the way that a previous court ruled on the same issue, following a doctrine known as stare decisis , a Latin term meaning "to stand by a decision". However, the judges in one circuit are not bound by rulings in another circuit. While an opinion written by a circuit court may be helpful or instructive, judges in a different circuit may choose to adopt a different approach in its opinion.
Circuit courts also tend to split because of geographical, political, or ideological differences. Different circuit courts have, over the years, developed individual reputations. Many commenters have argued that the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, tends to be more conservative than other circuit courts. Other commenters have argued that the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, California, tends to be more liberal than other circuit courts.
Splits among circuits are important because they usually signal future Supreme Court decisions. Often, the Supreme Court will move to resolve a split among the circuits, taking a case that will resolve, once and for all, the point of contention.