The Role of the United States Court of Appeals

US Courts of Appeals are the appellate courts for the federal system

The Role of the United States Courts of Appeals

The Judicial Branch of the federal government consists of three courts. These courts include the district courts, the Courts of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. Following the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals is the second highest of these courts. It was first established as the United States Circuit Courts of Appeals by Congress by way of the Judiciary Act of 1891, which was also known as the Evarts Act. Its purpose was to lessen the load of Supreme Court cases and to handle the appeals from the lower courts, such as the district and circuit courts. The original U.S. courts of appeals consisted of nine judicial circuits and nine courts of appeals. It was presided over by circuit and district judges who often sat in panels of three. Since that time, the U.S. Courts of Appeals has continued to grow and has undergone a number of changes.

The number of appeals reaching the Supreme Court decreased with the passing of Acts such as the Judiciary Act of 1925. In 1939, the circuit judicial councils were created, which gave the judges of the Courts of Appeals greater administrative power and responsibility. Another change that occurred was the number of judges per circuit. Where there were originally three, the number of judges varies from as few as six to as many as 28. The name of the federal appeals, or appellate courts was changed in 1948. In accordance with the Judicial Code of 1948, the name was changed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the numbered Circuit. For example, the 10th circuit, it is called the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

Today the U.S. Court of Appeals has grown to 13 circuits, which includes the District of Columbia and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The 10th circuit was created in 1929, the 11th in 1980. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was created as a result of the Federal Courts Improvement Act, which was passed in 1982 by Congress. It was a merger of the United States Court of Claims and the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. Unlike other Courts of Appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is not limited to any specific location. It instead hears appeals according to the subject matter. Often, cases are appeals from the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of International Trade, or patent cases.

The Court of Appeals in any given circuit hears appeals for cases within its circuit. An example of this would be to look at the United States Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit. The main court of appeals is located in New York. It will, however, hear cases not only from New York, but also from Vermont and Connecticut, which all three make up the second circuit.

The role of the Courts of Appeals is to hear cases that district courts have already tried, but whose verdict is disputed. These cases may be civil or criminal in nature. The losing party of either a civil or criminal case may appeal the verdict, however if the defendant of a criminal case is found innocent, the prosecution may not appeal the verdict. The Courts of Appeals does not retry cases, nor does the panel of three judges hear testimony from witnesses. Instead, they review records and findings of the original trial in order to determine if the outcome was the result of a legal error. The decision rendered by the Court of Appeals is the final judgment although it may send the case back to the district courts for further proceedings. If the losing party finds that the Court of Appeals judgment is unsatisfactory, a petition known as the writ of certiorari may be filed. This is a request to be seen before the Supreme Court; however, less than 100 cases are seen by the Supreme Court on a yearly basis.

Because of the nature of the Courts of Appeals, judgments often have a major impact. The Landmark case of Mendez v. Westminster is a prime example of this. In 1943, the children of Gonzolo Mendez were unable to enroll in schools in Orange County, California because they were Mexican-Americans. A segregation lawsuit, the first Federal lawsuit of its kind, was filed with the U.S. Court for the Southern District of California. When the verdict came back in favor of Mendez, the school district appealed to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which up held the decision. This prepared the way for other segregation cases, especially for Brown v. Board of Education.

The Courts of Appeals is an important part of the Judicial Branch of the federal government. Since its beginnings in 1891, it has served to reduce the burden of the Supreme Court and to review the decisions of district courts. This serves to ensure that verdicts are sound and follow the letter of the law. By understanding the Courts of Appeals, people are better able to understand their rights.

For further information about the Courts of Appeals, please read the following information.

  • Federal Court of Appeals: This page provides the reader with a brief history of circuit courts and explains their structure. There is also a color coded map that illustrates each of the circuits. The map is interactive in that holding the cursor over any of the circuits will show the names of the circuit's states and the city that houses where the court is located.

  • U.S. Court House & Post Office Los Angeles, California: This National Park Service page for the National Historic Landmark that is the U.S. Court House and Post Office. The page gives a thorough overview of the landmark case Mendez v. Westminster, which was a case that fought against segregation in schools against Mexican American children.

  • U.S. Court System - Federal Courts of Appeal: A brief and to-the-point explanation of what the Federal Courts of Appeal does. It explains how many judges there are in each of the court of appeals and how many sit on a case.

  • Western New England University School of Law - U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit: A Pathfinder: The first part of the article provides the reader with a brief history of the Court of Appeals. It also explains the structure of the circuits. Further information on the page pertains to the first circuit, such as listing the states that make up the circuit.

  • Directory of United States Courts: A chart of the United States Courts of Appeals. The chart lists the Courts of Appeals, the districts in each circuit, the number of judgeships in each circuit and the location of the court.

  • Landmark Case Summaries: A 14 page PDF document that lists landmark cases, including those that went to the Courts of Appeals. Each of the cases is summarized and lists the court with the final ruling decision, the case name, date and location.

  • US Courts - The Appeals Process: A page on the United States Courts website that explains what the appeals process involves. It explains who may or may not appeal in civil and criminal cases and how the judges make a decision. The end of the article explains how a person may go a step further if dissatisfied with the outcome, and petition the Supreme Court.

  • FDA - U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: A map display the circuits. The map is numbered for the circuit and states are color coded. A short write-up explains how many judicial circuits there are and names the largest and smallest courts by number of judgeships.

  • How Cases Move Through Federal Court – Appeals: This presentation on the Federal Judicial Center website explains the steps by which cases move through the appeals process starting with the assignment of judges. By clicking on the arrow beneath the page the reader can go to the next step in the process. The presentation includes review of the lower court decision, oral argument, and decision.

  • The White House - Judicial Branch: This page on the White House website explains the judicial branch of government. The Judicial Process section of the page reviews the court of appeals and how it functions.

  • The Judicial Branch: Interpreting the Constitution: The Courts of Appeals and District Courts section of the page explains when the court of appeals was created and why. It also reviews the number of judges per court in each circuit and what the purpose of the courts are.