Federal courts, called U.S. District Courts, are located in each state. These courts hear violations of treaties and federal laws, cases in which the government is a party, as well as civil complaints that involve patents, copyrights, multiple states, and bankruptcy cases. One of the federal courts’ most important and influential areas of law is when questions of constitutionality arise.
U.S. Courts of Appeals, also called U.S. Circuit Courts, are those intermediary courts that hear disputes of U.S. District Court and administrative agency decisions. The top level of federal appeals courts is the U.S. Supreme Court.
These courts are located in 12 geographically-defined circuits that generally consist of multiple states (with the exception of the District of Columbia circuit). One additional U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has national jurisdiction. Each of the federal districts has one appeals court.
Cases that are decided in U.S. District Courts have a right to be appealed to the circuit court of appeals, and each is weighed for its merits. Generally, the appeals court looks for an error in the way the law was applied and whether that error had a material impact on the case. When cases are accepted, they are not completely reenacted but briefs are forwarded from the settled case and attorneys may be asked to provide oral arguments. Panels of three judges review the material and render a decision. If the appeals court’s decision is considered flawed by one of the parties involved, it may be appealed to the Supreme Court.
Decisions of superior courts, such as U.S. District Courts, set precedents, or standards of interpretation of the law, that are used in subsequent cases. An appellate court decision can affirm the original decision, require the lower court to revisit the case, correct an error in the decision, or require the lower court to consider an opinion of the appeals court in its decision. The Federal Reporter publishes all available decisions of federal courts.
Many districts have created special bankruptcy appeals courts to deal specifically with issues arising over bankruptcy cases. District courts handle both individual and business bankruptcies that can be complex and long-lasting cases.
Across the country, all categories of criminal appeals have been declining in all federal appeals courts for several years with the exception of firearms and explosives crimes. In civil court, there were over 292,000 cases filed in a recent year. The largest increases in categories of cases included habeas corpus requests involving aliens, environmental issues related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Volkswagen’s fraudulent emissions testing, and prisoner petitions regarding the condition of prisons increased 36 percent.
The courts were inundated by motions to vacate and prisoner petitions (increases of 160 and 260 percent, respectively) following a Supreme Court ruling that changed the precedent on the enhanced sentencing of felons. The court’s decision in Welch v. the United States struck down a clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutional, prompting many serving time in prison to seek resentencing.
Federal court decisions can have significant impacts across the country. In 2011 the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided Glik v. Cunniff, which said that citizens have the right to record and videotape police officers in public places, including during the process of arresting people. Also, in apparently conflicting decisions, federal appeals courts have ruled on student apparel, including whether “I (heart) Boobies” bracelets and Confederate flag shirts could be worn in schools. In 1986, Dettmer v. Landon delineated limits on religious practices within prisons, specifically saying that items that are banned from prisoner’s belongings can be withheld even if they are involved in religious ceremonies, such as weapons. The Mendez v. Westminster School District of Orange County case, in 1947, was one of the first civil rights cases pertaining to education; that decision held that it was unconstitutional to provide separate schools for Mexican-American students. The courts also upheld the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh in 1998 for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.