The US courts of appeal


The courts of appeals receive
less media coverage than the
Supreme Court, but they are
very important in the U.S. judicial
system. Considering that the Supreme
Court hands down decisions with
full opinions in only 80 to 90 cases
each year, it is apparent that the courts of appeals are the courts of
last resort for most appeals in the
federal court system.
Circuit Courts: 1789-1891
The Judiciary Act of 1789 created
three circuit courts (courts of appeals), each composed of two justices
of the Supreme Court and a district
judge. The circuit court was to hold
two sessions each year in each district
within the circuit. 

The district judge
became primarily responsible for establishing the circuit court’s workload.
The two Supreme Court justices then
came into the local area and participated in the cases. This practice tended to give a local rather than national
focus to the circuit courts.
The circuit court system was regarded from the beginning as unsatisfactory, especially by Supreme Court
justices, who objected to the traveling
imposed upon them. Attorney General Edmund Randolph and President
Washington urged relief for the
Supreme Court justices. Congress
made a slight change in 1793 by altering the circuit court organization to
include only one 

Supreme Court
justice and one district judge. In the
closing days of President John Adams’s
administration in 1801, Congress
eliminated circuit riding by the
Supreme Court justices, authorized
the appointment of 16 new circuit
judges, and greatly extended the jurisdiction of the lower courts.
The new administration of Thomas
Jefferson strongly opposed this action,
and Congress repealed it. The Circuit
Court Act of 1802 restored circuit riding by Supreme Court justices and
expanded the number of circuits.
However, the legislation allowed the
circuit court to be presided over by a
single district judge. Such a change
may seem slight, but it proved to be of
great importance. Increasingly, the
district judges began to assume responsibility for both district and circuit courts. In practice, then, original
and appellate jurisdiction were both in
the hands of the district judges. 

The next major step in the development of the courts of appeals did not
come until 1869, when Congress approved a measure that authorized the
appointment of nine new circuit
judges and reduced the Supreme
Court justices’ circuit court duty to
one term every two years. Still, the
High Court was flooded with cases because there were no limitations on the
right of appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Courts of Appeals: 1891 to the
On March 3, 1891, the Evarts Act was
signed into law, creating new courts
known as circuit courts of appeals.
These new tribunals were to hear most
of the appeals from district courts.
The old circuit courts, which had
existed since 1789, also remained.
The new circuit court of appeals was
to consist of one circuit judge, one
circuit court of appeals judge 

one  district judge, and a Supreme Court
justice. Two judges constituted a quorum in these new courts.
Following passage of the Evarts Act,
the federal judiciary had two trial tribunals: district courts and circuit
courts. It also had two appellate tribunals: circuit courts of appeals and
the Supreme Court. Most appeals of
trial decisions were to go to the circuit
court of appeals, although the act
also allowed direct review in some
instances by the Supreme Court. In
short, creation of the circuit courts of
appeals released the Supreme Court
from many petty types of cases. 

Appeals could still be made, but the
High Court would now have much
greater control over its own workload.
Much of its former caseload was thus
shifted to the two lower levels of the
federal judiciary.
The next step in the evolution of
the courts of appeals came in 1911. In
that year Congress passed legislation
abolishing the old circuit courts, 

which had no appellate jurisdiction
and frequently duplicated the functions of district courts.
Today the intermediate appellate
tribunals are officially known as
courts of appeals, but they continue

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