Everything You Wanted to Know about the Ninth Circuit

By Teo Spengler ; Updated June 13, 2017
Supreme Court of the United States

President Donald Trump has criticized the Ninth Circuit in more than one of his late-night tweets, and said that the Supreme Court overturned 80 percent of its cases. Many Americans understand that the Ninth Circuit has ruled against Trump in recent executive order challenges without really knowing what the court does and where it fits into the nation's judiciary system.

If you have questions about the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, read on. We'll try to answer with all the information you need to understand this court's role in the federal judiciary.

1) Is the Ninth Circuit a state court?

The Ninth Circuit is not a state court. Circuit courts are part of the federal court system, not the state court system. In order to understand where the Ninth Circuit fits in, you have to start with an overview of the federal-state court divide.

Each state has a legislature that enacts laws regulating conduct in its respective state. The U.S. Congress enacts federal laws that apply to everyone in the country.

In general, state courts hear cases dealing with state laws or the state constitution, and federal courts hear cases that involve federal laws or the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts also hear diversity cases, where a party from one state sues a party from another state.

2) How is the federal court system organized?

The federal court system has three levels. A federal case starts in one of the district courts. A party losing in district court can appeal the decision to the circuit court. A party losing in the circuit court can ask the Supreme Court of the United States to hear an appeal.

The country has 94 district courts. District court judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They are appointed for life and can only be removed by impeachment or if they retire.

The nation is divided into 12 federal circuits, each having a circuit court to hear appeals from the district courts within that circuit. Each circuit includes more than one state. For example, the Fifth Circuit includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and hears appeals from decisions of district courts in those states. There is also one Federal Circuit Court of Appeals that hears very specific issues like patents.

Circuit court judges are also appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Each circuit has more than one judges, depending on the size of the circuit. For example, the First Circuit has six judges while the Ninth Circuit has 29. Generally, appeals are heard by a panel of three circuit court judges.

3) What states are in the Ninth Circuit?

The Ninth Circuit is the largest circuit. It includes states in the western part of the country: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. It also includes Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

That means that if a district court in any one of those states or territories hears a case, the losing party can bring an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

4) Are 80 percent of the Ninth Circuit's rulings reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court?

Trump claimed in a tweet that a large percent of the Ninth Circuit's decisions were reversed in the U.S. Supreme Court. What exactly does that mean?

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States court system. It may decide appeals on all circuit court decisions, including those decided in the Ninth Circuit. Once it has ruled, no further appeals are possible.

But the Supreme Court does not have to accept an appeal. Parties losing in a circuit court can file a document called a “writ of certiorari,” asking the court to hear the case. If the court agrees and grants the writ, the parties file briefs and make arguments before the Supreme Court. If the court doesn't grant the writ, the circuit court's opinion remains the law of the case.

The Supreme Court does not grant most writs of certiorari. In fact, the Supreme Courts accepts less than 1 percent of the appeals. In general, the Court will hear a case only where there are conflicting decisions in circuit courts on an issue or when it finds a very bad error in a ruling.

In the decade beginning in 1999, the Ninth Circuit heard and disposed of 114, 199 appeals, more than twice the number heard during the same period by most circuits. Only 140 of those were reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Obviously, this is not 80 percent of the cases the Ninth Circuit court decided; it is not even 1 percent of the total appeals heard by the Ninth Circuit. However, it is 80 percent of the 175 writs for certiorari the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear from Ninth Circuit decisions.

About the Author

Living in France and Northern California, Teo Spengler is an attorney, novelist and writer and has published thousands of articles about travel, gardening, business and law. Spengler holds a Master of Arts in creative writing from San Francisco State University and a Juris Doctor from UC Berkeley. She is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in fiction.