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How the Judicial System Works

Appeals Courts
Twelve appeals courts and 94 district courts serve the United States and its territories.
Twelve appeals courts and 94 district courts serve the United States and its territories.

There are 12 regional Circuit Court of Appeals and one U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Created in 1891, the number of judges on each court varies from six to 28, but most have 10 to 15. Each court has the power to review decisions of district courts in its region. Appeals Courts, sometimes called appellate courts, can also review orders of independent regulatory agencies if a dispute remains after the agencies’ internal review processes have been exhausted.

Appeal Process

A defendant who is found guilty by a criminal court can appeal the ruling to have the case heard by the Court of Appeals. Either side may appeal in a civil case. When the Court of Appeals hears a case, the person appealing the case, called the appellant, must show that the trial court made a legal error that affected the outcome of the case. Each side presents its argument in written documents called briefs to a panel of three judges. The court bases its decision on the record of the case and does not solicit new testimony or evidence. Some panels also allow for short oral arguments.

The court’s decision is final unless the case is sent back to the trial court. Someone who loses in Appeals Court can petition for a writ of certiorari, an official request for the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court is not required to hear the case but generally will if multiple appellate courts have interpreted the law differently, if an important legal principle is at stake, if the case presents an issue relating to how the Constitution is interpreted or if multiple appellate courts have interpreted the law differently.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has national jurisdiction for appeals in specialized cases, for example, patent laws or cases decided by courts of special jurisdiction, the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

Bankruptcy Appellate Panels

Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are panels made up of three judges that hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. Considered a unit of the Federal Court of Appeals, BAPs were created and modified by the Bankruptcy Reform Acts of 1978 and 1994. Appellants can appeal decisions by bankruptcy courts with the BAP or a District Court. The following circuits have BAPs: 1st, 6th, 8th, 9th and 10th.

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