United States courts of appeals

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Map of the geographic boundaries of the various United States courts of appeals and United States district courts US Court of Appeals and District Court map.svg
Map of the geographic boundaries of the various United States courts of appeals and United States district courts

The United States courts of appeals or circuit courts are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal judiciary. [1] The courts are divided into 13 circuits, and each hears appeals from the district courts within its borders, or in some instances from other designated federal courts and administrative agencies. Appeals from the circuit courts are taken to the Supreme Court of the United States. The district, appellate, and Supreme courts are all authorized under Article Three of the United States Constitution, giving them the exclusive functions as constitutional courts.


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 Americans, the United States courts of appeals have strong policy influence on U.S. law. Moreover, because the Supreme Court chooses to review fewer than 2% of the more than 7,000 to 8,000 cases filed with it annually, [2] the U.S. courts of appeals serve as the final arbiter on most federal cases. The D.C. Circuit in particular is very influential, since it covers Washington, D.C., and thus covers Congress and many U.S. government agencies. The Ninth Circuit, which covers the entire west coast of the United States and contains 20% of the American population, is also an influential court.[ citation needed ]

There are currently 179 judgeships on the U.S. courts of appeals authorized by Congress in 28 U.S.C.   § 43 pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Like other federal judges, they are nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate. They have lifetime tenure, earning (as of 2019) an annual salary of $223,700. [3] The actual number of judges in service varies, both because of vacancies and because senior judges who continue to hear cases are not counted against the number of authorized judgeships.

The 11 numbered circuits and the D.C. Circuit are geographically defined by the boundaries of their assigned U.S. district courts. The Tenth Circuit is unique in that it contains a small portion of Idaho and Montana due to the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming extending out of state to cover all of Yellowstone National Park. The 13th court of appeals is the Federal Circuit, which has nationwide jurisdiction over certain appeals based on specialized 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. 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 LexisNexis or Westlaw. More recently, court decisions have also been made available electronically on official court websites. 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, while the places where those judges must regularly sit to hear appeals are prescribed in 28 U.S.C.   § 48.

Although the courts of appeals are frequently called "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. The current "courts of appeals" system was established in the Judiciary Act of 1891, also known as the Evarts Act. [4]


Because the courts of appeals possess only appellate jurisdiction, they do not hold trials. Only courts with original jurisdiction hold trials and thus determine punishments (in criminal cases) and remedies (in civil cases). 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 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 Court, 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). [5] Because of the large number of Appellate Judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (29), only ten judges, chosen at random, and the Chief Judge hear en banc cases. [6]

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, which also reorganized many other things in the federal court system. Passage of this law was urged by Chief Justice William Howard Taft.

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. Certiorari before judgment was granted in the Watergate scandal-related case, United States v. Nixon , [7] and in the 2005 decision involving the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, United States v. Booker . [8]

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. For example, while between 1937 and 1946 twenty 'certificate' cases were accepted, since 1947 the Supreme Court has accepted only four. [9] The Second Circuit, sitting en banc, attempted to use this procedure in the case United States v. Penaranda, 375 F.3d 238 (2d Cir. 2004), [10] as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington , [11] but the Supreme Court dismissed the question. SeeUnited States v. Penaranda, 543 U.S. 1117 (2005). [12] The last instance of the Supreme Court accepting a set of questions and answering them was in 1982's City of Mesquite v. Aladdin's Castle, Inc, 455 US 283 (1982). [13]

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. [14]

Courts 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." [15]

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.

Decisions made by the circuit courts only apply to the states within the court's oversight, though other courts may use the guidance issued by the circuit court in their own judgments. While a single case can only be heard by one circuit court, a core legal principle may be tried through multiple cases in separate circuit courts, creating an inconsistency between different parts of the United States. This creates a split decision among the circuit courts. Often, if there is a split decision between two or more circuits, and a related case is petitioned to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court will often take that case as to resolve the split.


In order to serve as counsel in a case appealed to a circuit court, the attorney must first 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.

Judicial councils

Judicial councils are panels in each circuit that are charged with making "necessary and appropriate orders for the effective and expeditious administration of justice" within their circuits. [16] [17] Among their responsibilities is judicial discipline, the formulation of circuit policy, the implementation of policy directives received from the Judicial Conference of the United States, and the annual submission of a report to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts on the number and nature of orders entered during the year that relate to judicial misconduct. [16] [18] Judicial councils consist of the chief judge of the circuit and an equal number of circuit judges and district judges of the circuit. [16] [19]

Circuit composition

Map of the boundaries of the United States courts of appeals and United States district courts US Court of Appeals and District Court map.svg
Map of the boundaries of the United States courts of appeals and United States district courts

District of Columbia Circuit (Washington)

First Circuit (Boston)

Second Circuit (New York City)

Third Circuit (Philadelphia)

Fourth Circuit (Richmond)

Fifth Circuit (New Orleans)

Sixth Circuit (Cincinnati)

Seventh Circuit (Chicago)

Eighth Circuit (St. Louis)

Ninth Circuit (San Francisco)

Tenth Circuit (Denver)

Eleventh Circuit (Atlanta)

Federal Circuit (Washington)

  1. 1 2 3 These are article IV territorial courts and are therefore not part of the federal judiciary.
  2. The Federal Circuit also has appellate jurisdiction over certain claims filed in any district court.
  3. 1 2 These are article I tribunals and are therefore not part of the federal judiciary.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 These are administrative bodies within the executive branch and are therefore not part of the federal judiciary.
  5. This is an administrative body within the legislative branch are therefore not part of the federal judiciary.

Circuit population

Based on 2010 United States Census figures, the population residing in each circuit is as follows.

CircuitAuthorized judgesPopulationPercentage of US populationPopulation per authorized judge
D.C. Circuit11601,7230.19%54,702
1st Circuit613,970,8164.47%2,328,469
2nd Circuit1323,577,9407.54%1,813,688
3rd Circuit1422,498,6127.19%1,607,044
4th Circuit1529,788,4179.52%1,985,894
5th Circuit1732,646,23010.44%1,920,366
6th Circuit1632,105,61610.26%2,006,601
7th Circuit1125,001,4207.99%2,272,856
8th Circuit1120,568,2376.58%1,869,840
9th Circuit2961,742,90819.74%2,129,066
10th Circuit1217,020,3555.44%1,418,363
11th Circuit1233,268,69910.64%2,772,392
Federal Circuit [Note 1] 12N/AN/AN/A


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 number of circuits remained unchanged until the year after Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, when the Midnight Judges Act 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.

StateJudicial District(s) createdCircuit assignment(s)
New Hampshire 1789Eastern, 1789–1801
1st, 1801–
Massachusetts 1789Eastern, 1789–1801
1st, 1801–
Maine 1789 [Note 2] Eastern, 1789–1801
1st, 1801–1820
1st, 1820–
Rhode Island 1790Eastern, 1790–1801
1st, 1801–
Connecticut 1789Eastern, 1789–1801
2nd, 1801–
New York 1789Eastern, 1789–1801
2nd, 1801–
New Jersey 1789Middle, 1789–1801
3rd, 1801–
Pennsylvania 1789Middle, 1789–1801
3rd, 1801–
Delaware 1789Middle, 1789–1801
3rd, 1801–1802
4th, 1802–1866
3rd, 1866–
Maryland 1789Middle, 1789–1801
4th, 1801–
Virginia 1789Middle, 1789–1801
4th, 1801–1802
5th, 1802–1842
4th, 1842–
Kentucky 1789 [Note 3] 6th, 1801–1802
7th, 1807–1837
8th, 1837–1863
6th, 1863–
North Carolina 1790Southern, 1790–1801
5th, 1801–1842
6th, 1842–1863
4th, 1863–
South Carolina 1789Southern, 1789–1801
5th, 1801–1802
6th, 1802–1863
5th, 1863–1866
4th, 1866–
Georgia 1789Southern, 1789–1801
5th, 1801–1802
6th, 1802–1863
5th, 1863–1981
11th, 1981–
Vermont 1791Eastern, 1791–1801
2nd, 1801–
Tennessee 17966th, 1801–1802
7th, 1807–1837
8th, 1837–1863
6th, 1863–
Ohio 1801 (abolished 1802) [Note 4] 6th, 1801–1802
Ohio 18037th, 1807–1866
6th, 1866–
Louisiana 18129th, 1837–1842 (Eastern District)
5th, 1842–1863
6th, 1863–1866
5th, 1866–
Indiana 18167th, 1837–
Mississippi 18179th, 1837–1863
5th, 1863–
Illinois 18187th, 1837–1863
8th, 1863–1866
7th, 1866–
Alabama 18199th, 1837–1842
5th, 1842–1981
11th, 1981–
Missouri 18218th, 1837–1863
9th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–
Arkansas 18369th, 1837–1851
9th, 1851–1863 (Eastern District)
6th, 1863–1866 (Eastern District)
8th, 1866–
Michigan 18377th, 1837–1863
8th, 1863–1866
6th, 1866–
Florida 18455th, 1863–1981
11th, 1981–
Texas 18456th, 1863–1866
5th, 1866–
Iowa 18469th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–
Wisconsin 18488th, 1863–1866
7th, 1866–
California 1850California Circuit, 1855–1863
10th, 1863–1866
9th, 1866–
Minnesota 18589th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–
Oregon 185910th, 1863–1866
9th, 1866–
Kansas 18619th, 1863–1866
8th, 1866–1929
10th, 1929–
West Virginia 18634th, 1863–
Nevada 18649th, 1866–
Nebraska 18678th, 1867–
Colorado 18768th, 1876–1929
10th, 1929–
North Dakota 18898th, 1889–
South Dakota 18898th, 1889–
Montana 18899th, 1889–
Washington 18899th, 1889–
Idaho 18909th, 1890–
Wyoming 18908th, 1890–1929
10th, 1929–
Utah 18968th, 1896–1929
10th, 1929–
Oklahoma 19078th, 1907–1929
10th, 1929–
New Mexico 19128th, 1912–1929
10th, 1929–
Arizona 19129th, 1912–
District of Columbia 1948 [Note 5] District of Columbia Circuit, 1948–
Alaska 19599th, 1959–
Hawaii 19599th, 1959–
Puerto Rico 1966 [Note 6] 1st, 1966–
Virgin Islands
Philippines 1898 [Note 7]
Panama Canal Zone [Note 8]

See also


  1. The Federal Circuit's jurisdiction is not based on geography; rather, the Federal Circuit has jurisdiction over the entire United States, for certain classes of cases.
  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 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.
  4. The first District of Ohio encompassed the Northwest and Indiana Territories.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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Judiciary Act of 1789

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In law, an appeal is the process in which cases are reviewed by a higher authority, where parties request a formal change to an official decision. Appeals function both as a process for error correction as well as a process of clarifying and interpreting law. Although appellate courts have existed for thousands of years, common law countries did not incorporate an affirmative right to appeal into their jurisprudence until the 19th century.

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A certificate of division was a source of appellate jurisdiction from the circuit courts to the Supreme Court of the United States from 1802 to 1911. Created by the Judiciary Act of 1802, the certification procedure was available only where the circuit court sat with a full panel of two: both the resident district judge and the circuit-riding Supreme Court justice. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, he did not have "the privilege of dividing the court when alone."


  1. 28 U.S.C.   § 43 provides that "There shall be in each circuit a court of appeals, which shall be a court of record, known as the United States Court of Appeals for the circuit".
  2. U.S. Supreme Court FAQ Retrieved 7 September 2016.
  3. Judicial Compensation U.S. Courts. Retrieved 5 April 2020.
  4. The U.S. Courts of Appeals and the Federal Judiciary, History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center (last visited March 5, 2014).
  5. See e.g. "IOP 35.1. En Banc Poll and Decision". United States Court of Appeals 2nd Circuit. Retrieved 10 September 2020.
  6. Rule 35-3 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, Ninth Circuit Rules. http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/uploads/rules/frap.pdf
  7. United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974)
  8. United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005)
  9. Aaron Nielson, The Death of the Supreme Court's Certified Question Jurisdiction, 59 Cath. U. L. Rev. 483 (2010), http://scholarship.law.edu/lawreview/vol59/iss2/5
  10. "US v. Penaranda, 375 F. 3d 238 - Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit 2004 - Google Scholar".
  11. Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004)
  12. "United States v. Penaranda, 543 U.S. 1117 | Casetext". casetext.com.
  13. "City of Mesquite v. Aladdin's Castle, Inc., 455 US 283 - Supreme Court 1982 - Google Scholar".
  14. 28 U.S.C § 158 https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/28/158
  15. Bradley v. Richmond Sch. Bd., 416 U.S. 696, 711-12 (1974)
  16. 1 2 3 Barbour, Emily C. (April 7, 2011), Judicial Discipline Process: An Overview (PDF), Congressional Research Service
  17. 28 U.S.C.   § 332
  18. 28 U.S.C.   § 332(g)
  19. 28 U.S.C.   § 332(1)(a)