Circuits, Judicial

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CIRCUITS, JUDICIAL. Judicial circuits form the largest administrative subunit of the federal judicial system. With the exception of the District of Columbia circuit, each is a multistate unit formed by the federal district court or courts within each state in the circuit. Decisions of the federal district courts are appealable to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the circuit in which the district court resides. The decisions of the Courts of Appeals are subject to review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Article III, section 1, of the U.S. Constitution establishes the Supreme Court and gives Congress the power to establish "such inferior courts" as it deems necessary. In enacting the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress created three judicial circuits and established one district court in each state of the Union. Congress then provided for the appointment of district judges, but no circuit judges. The circuit courts were to consist of one district judge and two Supreme Court justices, who were to "ride circuit." As the United States expanded, Congress created new circuits and increased the number of district courts and judges. Circuit court sessions were increasingly difficult to hold, for the burden of travel was too great. In 1869 Congress passed the Circuit Court Act, which created one circuit judge in each circuit, and required the Supreme Court justices to attend circuit court only once every two years. The circuit courts were otherwise to be held by the circuit judge and the district judge, either alone or together.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States experienced a tremendous increase in the volume and scope of federal litigation due to the rapid increase of federal lawsuits to settle disputes stemming from the growth of national manufacturing and distribution of goods, as well as litigation produced by the Civil War constitutional amendments and their enforcement legislation. The growing volume of federal litigation caused a severe backlog of cases in the Supreme Court. To ease the workload of the Court and the long delays litigants experienced in waiting for the Court's decisions, in 1890 Congress passed the Evarts Act, which established courts of appeals in each of the ten circuits. Final judgments of the district and circuit courts were appealable to them, parties have an absolute right to take an appeal, and their judgments were final except for those cases in which the Supreme Court voted to grant a writ of certiorari and review the decision of the courts of appeals.

Congress created two court of appeals judgeships in each circuit. The new appellate courts were to have panels of three judges—the two court of appeals judges and either a district judge or, on rare occasions, a circuit justice—to decide cases. In 1911 Congress abolished the circuit courts. During the twentieth century Congress created two additional circuits (there are currently eleven plus the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia).

As federal regulation of American society expanded, the courts in the federal circuits became the primary arenas for settling disputes over the nature and scope of permissible governmental intervention in society. The courts of appeals became important policymakers because their judicial decisions are the final decision in all but about 2 percent of the cases, since the U.S. Supreme Court takes and decides only several hundred cases per year from the thousands of circuit courts of appeals cases.


Frankfurter, Felix, and James M. Landis. The Business of the Supreme Court: A Study in the Federal Judicial System. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Howard, J. Woodford, Jr. Courts of Appeals in the Federal Judicial System: A Study of the Second, Fifth, and District of Columbia Circuits. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Rayman L.Solomon

See alsoSupreme Court .