The United States Courts of Appeals (or circuit courts) are the mid-level appellate courts of the United States federal court system. A court of appeals decides appeals from the district courts within its federal judicial circuit, and in some instances from other designated federal courts and administrative agencies.
The judicial circuits of the eleven "numbered" circuits and the D.C. Circuit are geographically defined. The D.C. Circuit also hears appeals from agency decisions and rulemaking. The Federal Circuit hears appeals from specialized trial courts, primarily the United States Court of International Trade and the United States Court of Federal Claims. The Federal Circuit also hears appeals from the district courts in patent cases and certain other specialized matters. Finally, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces hears appeals in court-martial cases.
The circuit with the least number of appellate judges is the First Circuit, and the one with the most is the Ninth Circuit. The number of judges Congress has authorized for each circuit is set forth in the U.S. Code (U.S.C.) at Title 28, Section 44.
The rules that govern the procedure in the circuit courts are the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure . Being appellate courts, the circuit courts do not hold trials, which is where witnesses and other evidence are presented to a jury or judge that then decides the facts of what happened and what, if any, punishment (in criminal cases), damages, or other relief should be awarded. Appeals courts decide only the question of whether the trial court reached the right conclusion in the case, based on the evidence presented there, so in an appeal the court considers only the record (that is, the papers the parties filed and the transcripts and any exhibits from any trial) from the trial court and the legal arguments of the parties, made in written form as briefs and sometimes in spoken form as oral argument at a hearing where the parties' lawyers (only) speak to the court.
In a court of appeals, an appeal is almost always heard by a "panel" of three of the court's judges, although there are instances where all of the judges will participate in an en banc hearing. As a rule, there is no right to appeal a decision of the federal circuit court to the Supreme Court of the United States, but a party may apply to that court to review a ruling of the circuit court -- that is called petitioning for a writ of certiorari -- and if the Supreme Court agrees, then the matter is treated like an appeal to the Supreme Court from the circuit court.
A court of appeals may also certify questions to the Supreme Court, a rare procedure that was used by the Second Circuit, sitting en banc, in United States v. Penaranda , as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington. 28 U.S.C. 1254(2).
In order to serve as counsel in a case appealed to a circuit court the attorney must be admitted to the bar of that circuit. The United States does not have a separate bar examination for federal practice (except with respect to patent law). Admission to the bar of a circuit court is generally granted as a matter of course to any attorney who is admitted to practice law in any state located within the circuit. The attorney submits his application with a nominal fee and takes the oath of admission. Local practice varies as to whether the oath is given in writing or in open court before a judge of the circuit.
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