Differences Between a Circuit Court and a Chancery Court

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Courts of Appeals. District Courts. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels. Article I Courts. The Supreme Court. Here in the United States, the list of court types is a long one; when you say you're "going to court," it can mean one of about a dozen different types of federal and state courts. Further, things don't get any easier to understand when the same type of court goes by a few different names. You've probably heard of circuit courts and appellate courts, but it turns out that they're same thing. Chancery courts go by a few different names, too – to understand how they differ from circuit courts (and they do differ), you'll need to learn the types of cases each court handles.

Federal Court System Hierarchy

Because circuit courts fall right in the middle of the federal court system, having a little context is essential. When it comes to civil cases, federal courts can hear only cases authorized by the United States Constitution or by federal statutes or treaties, or those cases involving the United States as a party.

This type of jurisdiction is known as "original jurisdiction." While this jurisdiction sometimes overlaps with that of state courts, state courts typically try criminal cases having to do with state law. Some non-criminal cases based on state law may be brought to federal courts via diversity jurisdiction, such as when a plaintiff of one state files a lawsuit against a defendant in another state.

In the United States, the federal court system is comprised of three main levels:

  • District courts
  • Circuit courts
  • The Supreme court

District courts serve as general trial courts for the federal court system, featuring at least one United States District judge who has been appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. This type of court sees both criminal and civil cases. Some courts that specialize in particular legal areas also serve as district courts, such as a bankruptcy court in each federal district.

The circuit court doesn't come into play until a federal district court has decided the case. Once the case has been decided, it may be appealed at a United States court of appeal, also known as an appellate court or a circuit court. They're called "circuit courts" because the United States is divided into 12 distinct federal circuits that represent different regions of the country (for example, the Fifth Circuit accounts for Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit based in New Orleans). Each court of appeals features a panel of judges but no juries, and aims to assess whether or not the law was applied properly in trial court decisions.

Established by Article III of the Constitution of the United States – which also authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a lower system of courts – the Supreme Court is the absolute, highest court in the country. The Supreme Court of the United States has the power to decide on all appeals cases brought in federal court, as well as those brought in state courts that pertain to federal law. Cases that have been finalized in circuit courts or state supreme courts may be brought to the Supreme Court for appeal; however – in contrast to circuit courts – the Supreme Court is not required to hear the appeal. In fact, less than one percent of appeals made to the Supreme Court are heard, according to the Offices of the United States Attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice.

How Circuit Courts Work

While trial courts rely on juries, circuit courts each have multiple judges, though the number can vary – the First Circuit has six, for instance, while the Ninth Circuit has 29. Like district court judges, circuit court judges are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

Any case finalized by a district court may be tried in a circuit court, as can the decisions made by federal administrative agencies (but it doesn't end there – circuit courts can even try some cases that haven't been finalized yet via an action known as an interlocutory appeal).

To try a case in a circuit court, you must file a brief, a typically lengthy document that argues why the district trial court's decision should be upheld ("affirmed") or overturned ("reversed"). The person or party filing the appeal is known as the petitioner, while the opposing side is known as the respondent. Once the brief is filed, an appeal is heard by a panel of three judges, presented by lawyers who make an oral argument and answer questions from the judiciary panel.

One thing about appellate courts that is particularly important to understand: They do not re-try cases from district courts. No new evidence is presented, nor is any sort of witness testimony. The court simply reviews the procedures of the trial court – and its ensuing decision – in an effort to ensure that the trial was fair and that it properly followed the letter of the law.

The History of Chancery Courts

It's a bit tough to define chancery courts, or even the meaning of the chancery system. To shed light on what a chancery court is today, we have to go back to its origins.

Chancery courts are named as such because they were originally – in England before the passing of the judicature acts of the 1870s – courts with the jurisdiction of a chancellor acting as the "King's conscience." This title made its way to the United States as a "court of chancery," which essentially became a court with general equity powers.

Like the chancery court itself, equity is a centuries-old English legal concept. At its core, equity is a system by which judges make decisions based on more flexible fairness and common-sense principles, rather than the strict application of common laws, especially in cases where common law may result in injustice. This concept is why you'll also hear chancery courts referred to as "equity courts."

The United States Constitution, however, gives federal courts judicial power in "all Cases, in Law and Equity," as per the first clause of section 2, Article III. However, the Judiciary Act of 1789 gave original jurisdiction to circuit courts in larger equity cases, and some states in early U.S. history maintained both law and equity courts. Starting with Congress' Process Act of 1792 and followed by detailed rules set by the Supreme Court in 1822, 1842 and 1912, the U.S. judiciary bodies sought to maintain clear separation between equity and common law jurisdiction, while ensuring uniformity in the exercise of federal equity. At this time, U.S. equity courts still looked to the precedents set by the English Court of Chancery for guidance.

Through the mid-1800s and early 1900s, the Supreme Court modified traditional English equity rules to empower federal equity courts to make rulings in exceptional cases where common law might prove insufficient. Equity cases remained exceedingly rare, and many states passed legislation to abolish distinctions between equity and common law. Federal courts held on to their ability to recognize equitable relief by combining law and equity into cases dubbed "civil action" cases, as defined by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, adopted in 1938.

The Modern Chancery Court

While most of the functions of the chancery court have been absorbed by regular courts, a few chancery courts remain in operation in the United States today. As in their historical role, judges at chancery courts may modify the application of rigid legal rules to provide relief in a small variety of individual cases. As of 2019, states including Tennessee, Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey and South Carolina are home to still-operational chancery courts. States that maintain chancery courts generally still retain a distinction between common law and equity, in rare contrast to the standard of merging chancery courts with courts of common law.

Typically, the types of issues handled by chancery courts include contract disputes, injunction applications, lawsuits and name changes. Issues dealing with adoption, divorce and workers' compensation, to name a few, are sometimes heard in either circuit or chancery courts.

Some extant chancery courts – such as the Delaware Court of Chancery – are non-trial courts. These mainly serve as watchdogs in corporate cases and those involving issues such as civil rights, commercial litigation, guardianships and trusts. In a somewhat similar fashion, other renaming chancery courts (such as the Williamson County Chancery Court in Franklin, Tennessee) serve as courts of equity that exercise concurrent jurisdiction with circuit courts on specific actions such as divorce, administration of estates, conservatorships and wills.

Other Types of Circuit Courts

Of course, courts in the U.S. don't end with your garden varieties of circuit courts and chancery courts. On the contrary, these are just a tiny slice of the United States court system. Here's a look at just a few of the other types of circuit courts you might run into during your experiences with the American legal system:

  • United States Court of International Trade: Like the Supreme Court, this court was established under Article III of the Constitution. Located in New York City, the United States Court of International Trade exercises national jurisdiction over civil actions related to the U.S. customs and international trade laws. 
  • United States Court of Federal Claims:

    The Court of Federal Claims is a pretty unique beast – this court does not hear criminal cases, and it doesn't convene juries. Instead, it resolves cases brought against the federal government regarding monetary damages. Here, you'll find cases that deal with issues such as government contracts, bid protest, civilian and military pay, tax refunds, Fifth Amendment just compensation and intellectual property disputes.  Bankruptcy Appellate Panels: Operating under federal courts of appeals in the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits, Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (or BAPs) are similar to Courts of Appeals, but these three-judge panels specialize in appealing bankruptcy court decisions.  United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims: Established by Article I of the Constitution, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims wears its duty on its sleeve, offering a impartial judicial forum for veterans. This court handles cases from military veteran appellants, regarding subjects such as entitlement benefits, education payments, survivor benefits, benefits for service-connected disabilities and more.  * United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces: Five civilian judges, each appointed by the President for 15-year terms, oversee the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. This court appellate jurisdiction extends internationally over any active duty persons in the military, or anyone subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As such, it reviews cases in the realm of national security law, administrative law, ethics, criminal procedure and constitutional law. 

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About the Author

As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.