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Courts of Appeals and District Courts

The second highest level of the federal judiciary is made up of the courts of appeals, created in 1891 to facilitate the disposition of cases and ease the burden on the Supreme Court. Congress has established 12 regional circuit courts of appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The number of judges sitting on each of these courts varies considerably (from 6 to 29), but most circuits have between 10 and 15 judges.

The courts of appeals review decisions of the district courts (trial courts with federal jurisdiction) within their areas. They also are empowered to review orders of the independent regulatory agencies in cases where the internal review mechanisms of the agencies have been exhausted and there still exists substantial disagreement over legal points. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the courts of special jurisdiction, the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

Below the courts of appeals are the district courts. The 50 states and U.S. territories are divided into 94 districts so that litigants may have a trial within easy reach. With 678 judges, total, each district court has at least two judges, many have several judges, and the most populous districts have more than two dozen. Depending on case load, a judge from one district may temporarily sit in another district. Congress fixes the boundaries of the districts according to population, size, and volume of work. Some of the smaller states constitute a district by themselves, while the larger states, such as New York, California, and Texas, have four districts each.

Except in the District of Columbia, judges must be residents of the district in which they permanently serve. District courts hold their sessions at periodic intervals in different cities of the district.

Most cases and controversies heard by these courts involve federal offenses such as misuse of the mails, theft of federal property, and violations of pure-food, banking, and counterfeiting laws. These are the only federal courts where “grand” juries indict those accused of crimes and “petit” juries decide the cases.

Each judicial district also includes a U.S. bankruptcy court, because Congress has determined that bankruptcy matters should be addressed in federal courts rather than state courts. Through the bankruptcy process, individuals or businesses that can no longer pay their creditors either may seek a court-supervised liquidation of their assets or may reorganize their financial affairs and work out a plan to pay off their debts.

judicial district

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Page last modified: 07-10-2017 17:47:46 ZULU