This article is from the Legal Research FAQ, by Mark Eckenwiler with numerous contributions by others.
Above the District Courts sit the Circuit Courts of Appeal.
There are 13 such courts (1st-11th Circuits, plus D.C. and the Federal
Circuit.) With one exception, these courts hear appeals from District
Court decisions within their individual geographical regions. For
instance, the Second Circuit presides over the four federal Districts
in New York state (EDNY, SDNY, WDNY, NDNY), and the Districts of
Connecticut and Vermont.
(The exception is the confusingly named Federal Circuit, a
special court for patent appeals, which reviews District Court
decisions in this area from all over the country. As for the other
Circuits, the frontispiece map in any recent volume of the **Federal
Supplement or **Federal Reporter will show which states are in each
There are approximately 180 regular service Circuit Judges, 28
USC sec. 44, and in addition a varying number of senior Circuit
Judges. The Circuits vary widely in size: the Ninth Circuit, covering
CA, AK, AZ, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA, HI, and Guam, has 28 regular slots,
while the First, covering MA, ME, NH, RI, and PR, has only 6. Like
District Court Judges, Circuit Judges have life tenure.
Almost all District Court orders are appealable to the Circuit
Court. However, except for a few specific types of orders (such as
those granting or denying preliminary injunctions), most orders are
not immediately appealable. Instead, parties must usually wait until
the entire case has been disposed of in the District Court, and then
raise all of their appeals at a single time. See 28 USC secs. 1291 &
Unlike District Court Judges, who preside alone over their cases,
Circuit Courts sit in essentially random panels of three judges for
each case. In extremely rare circumstances, a majority of the judges
in the Circuit may sit "en banc" (also known as "in banc", or "in
bench") on a single appeal in order to clarify or review a
On occasion, the Chief Judge of a Circuit may invite a District
Court Judge (or a judge from another circuit) to sit temporarily on a
3-judge panel to hear one or more appeals. This process is called
"sitting by designation." When sitting by designation, a District
Court Judge may not review his/her own earlier decisions.
Circuit Court decisions are binding on the district courts
within that circuit. This fosters uniformity of law within each
circuit, although the circuits themselves may disagree strongly on
points of law. (See the next section's discussion of "certiorari.")
Current circuit court decisions may be found on the net through