United States courts of appeals

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.

Map of the geographic boundaries of the various United States courts of appeals and United States district courts

The United States courts of appeals are considered the most powerful and influential courts in the United States after the Supreme Court. 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 3% of the 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.

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]