As we all know, the Supreme Court consists of nine Justices, but since the death of Antonin Scalia last year, there’s been a vacancy. President Trump will have the responsibility to nominate a new justice and has been considering Scalia’s replacement. He’s narrowed down his pool of candidates to eight, seven of which are currently serving as Court of Appeals judges.
Speaking for myself, short of knowing that they decide whether a decision by a district trial court was applied properly, I didn’t really know much about the circuit court judges, thus the reason for this essay.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court.
The United States courts of appeals (or circuit courts) are the intermediate appellate courts of the United States federal court system. A court of appeals decides appeals from the district courts within its federal judicial circuit, and in some instances from other designated federal courts and administrative agencies.
The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
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 U.S. Supreme Court chooses to review less than 2% of the more than 7,000 to 8,000 cases filed with it annually, the United States courts of appeals serve as the final arbiter on most federal cases. The Ninth Circuit in particular is very influential, covering 20% of the American population.
There are currently 179 judges on the United States courts of appeals authorized by Congress and Article III of the U.S. Constitution. These judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They have lifetime tenure, earning (as of 2016) an annual salary of $215,400.
Locations of appellate courts and the number of judges assigned to each one:
- First Circuit – Boston, 6 judges
- Second Circuit – New York City, 13 judges
- Third Circuit – Philadelphia, 14 judges
- Fourth Circuit – Richmond, 15 judges
- Fifth Circuit – New Orleans, 17 judges
- Sixth Circuit – Cincinnati, 16 judges
- Seventh Circuit – Chicago, 11 judges
- Eighth Circuit – St. Louis, 11 judges
- Ninth Circuit – San Francisco, 29 judges
- Tenth Circuit – Denver, 12 judges
- Eleventh Circuit – Washington, 12 judges
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
An appeal is available if, after a trial in the U.S. District Court, the losing side has issues with the trial court proceedings, the law that was applied, or how the law was applied. Generally, on these grounds, litigants have the right to an appellate court review of the trial court’s actions. In criminal cases, the government does not have the right to appeal.
The reasons for an appeal vary. However, a common reason is that the dissatisfied side claims that the trial was conducted unfairly or that the trial judge applied the wrong law, or applied the law incorrectly. The dissatisfied side may also claim that the law the trial court applied violates the U.S. Constitution or a state constitution.
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 Courts, the en banc court consists of all of the circuit judges who are on active status.
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.
Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate, as stated in the Constitution. The Senate Judiciary Committee typically conducts confirmation hearings for each nominee. Article III of the Constitution states that these judicial officers are appointed for a life term.
The Constitution sets forth no specific qualifications to become a federal judge. However, members of Congress, who typically recommend potential nominees, and the Department of Justice, which reviews nominees’ qualifications, have developed their own informal criteria.
There you have it. At least now we know better how the appeals court works and the responsibilities of the judges. We’ll have to rely to those who vetted the nominees that all of the eight are people of character and (hopefully) are truly conservative.