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What is the Federal Court of Appeals?

By R. Anacan
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Federal Court of Appeals is the appellate court in the United States Federal Court system. In addition to the Federal Court of Appeals, the United States Court system consists of United States District Courts, United States Bankruptcy Courts and the United States Supreme Court. Each level of the Federal court system serves a unique and specific purpose as part of the philosophy of checks and balances that is a hallmark of the design of the United States government.

The primary function of the Federal Court of Appeals is to review appeals from U.S. District Courts and from cases that involve a Federal agency. Cases in the Federal Court system generally originate in U.S. District Court, as the District Courts are the trial courts of the Federal system. There are 94 separate districts in the District Court system, with at least one district court located in each state and in three territories. The Court of Appeals system is divided into thirteen regional circuits, with the District Courts assigned to a specific regional U.S. Court of Appeals.

If a party in a case decided in a District Court is unhappy with the decision, that party may request that the decision be reviewed by the Federal Court of Appeals. A small panel of judges, typically totaling three in number, will review the case being appealed. The purpose of the review of the Court of Appeals is generally not to retry the case or to determine if the facts of the case are correct. Rather the Federal Court of Appeals will review arguments from both sides of the case to ensure that the right procedures were followed during the trial and that there were no errors of law made. Errors of law may include inadmissible evidence that was allowed by the court to be presented and incorrect or incomplete instructions provided to the jury by a judge.

The Court of Appeals will deliberate to determine if an error of law was made and if the error was a contributing factor to the ultimate decision reached during the trial. If an error of law was found to have affected the ruling, the Federal Court of Appeals may either overturn the ruling of the District Court or send the case back to the District Court with specific instructions on how to proceed. Decisions made in the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court will generally only review cases that involve major principles of law and the rulings of the Supreme Court are final.

The Federal Court of Appeals was established in the late 19th century to relieve the case load from the U.S. Supreme Court, which up to that point was the only appellate court of the Federal judiciary. The number of judges that sit on a specific Court of Appeals varies with each circuit. However, as with all Federal judges, judges on the Court of Appeals are appointed for lifetime terms.

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