What is Circuit Court?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 16, 2018
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One Two Three Jello was very popular a decade or so back. If you ever indulged, you have a very good idea of the federal court system, since the federal judiciary also comes in three layers. The large bottom layer is made up of the federal district courts, the trial courts for cases involving federal law. The middle layer is comprised of the federal circuit courts, to which district court decisions can be appealed. The top layer is the United States Supreme Court, with discretion to review circuit court decisions.

Tip

In the federal judiciary, a circuit court is an appellate court that hears appeals from federal trial courts (called district courts) within the circuit.

What Does the Circuit Court Handle?

If you lose a trial in state court, you can ask the state court of appeals to review the decision and decide if the law was correctly interpreted and applied. This is called an appeal. In federal court, it works pretty much the same.

The trial courts in the federal system, the district courts, handle legal cases and trials brought under federal law. Federal district courts can also hear cases that are entirely based on state law if the parties are from other states. This is called the court’s “diversity jurisdiction.” Diversity jurisdiction makes it possible for a party in one state to sue someone in another state by bringing the case in federal court.

Losing parties in district court cases can appeal these decisions to the federal circuit courts of appeal. A federal circuit court also hears appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. The circuit courts review what happened in the case at the district court level and decide whether the law was properly interpreted and applied. Like other appellate courts, they do not reconsider the facts, hear witnesses or view new evidence. Instead, they review the procedures and decisions made by the trial court judge to make sure that the proceedings were fair.

Appeal to the circuit court is a right. If you lose in district court, you can bring an appeal. You do not have to petition for the court to hear an appeal, and the circuit court cannot reject an appeal if it is properly brought.

How Many Circuit Courts Are There?

There are 94 federal judicial districts in the country. They are divided by law into 12 regions, also called circuits, and each has a circuit court of appeals. Each hears appeals from the districts within its circuit. For example, the Fifth Circuit includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. All cases from the district courts of those states can be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, located in New Orleans, Louisiana. These appellate courts sit directly below the U.S. Supreme Court in terms of jurisdiction.

Once an appeal is made to a circuit court, it is usually heard by a panel of three circuit court judges. Parties file papers presenting their arguments about why the trial court’s decision was right or wrong. After the briefs are filed, the court hears oral argument. Lawyers come before the court to present their positions and answer the judges’ questions.

What is the 13th Circuit Court of Appeals?

Twelve circuit courts are regional courts of appeal. Each one hears appeals from district courts and federal agencies within its district.

The 13th circuit court is not regional, but its jurisdiction is limited to specialized cases. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit can hear cases from anywhere in the country as long as they address certain matters, including those involving patent laws or decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade or the Court of Federal Claims.

About the Author

From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. World traveler, professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.

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