The U.S. courts of appeals were the first federal courts designed exclusively to hear cases on appeal from trial courts. In an effort to relieve the caseload burden in the Supreme Court and to handle a dramatic increase in federal filings, Congress, in the Judiciary Act of 1891, established nine courts of appeals, one for each judicial circuit. The existing circuit judges and a newly-authorized judge in each circuit were the judges of the appellate courts. The circuit justice and district judges in the circuit also were authorized to sit on the three-person courts of appeals panels.
The act of 1891, commonly known as the Evarts Act, gave the U.S. courts of appeals jurisdiction over the great majority of appeals from the U.S. district courts and the U.S. circuit courts. The Act sharply limited the categories of cases that could be routinely appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Judiciary Act of 1925 and later statutes continued that trend while expanding the jurisdiction of the courts of appeals. By the 1930s, the courts also had jurisdiction over administrative appeals of decisions rendered by federal regulatory agencies. The 1922 law that established the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, the forerunner of the Judicial Conference of the United States, gave the senior judge in each circuit some formal administrative authority over the district courts in each circuit. Congress expanded the administrative responsibility of the courts of appeals judges in 1939 with the creation of the circuit judicial councils.
The courts of appeals grew in size and number as well. By the 1920s, each U.S. court of appeals had at least three assigned judgeships, thereby eliminating the need for the regular service of district judges on court of appeals panels. In 1893, Congress created a Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. Two additional courts of appeals were created with the establishment of new regional circuits, the Tenth in 1929 and the Eleventh in 1980. In 1982, Congress combined the jurisdictions of the U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the U.S. Court of Claims into one court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. In recent years Congress has established commissions to examine possible changes in the structure of the courts of appeals. The Commission on Revision of the Federal Court Appellate System in 1973 recommended the division of the Fifth Circuit as well as the creation of a National Court of Appeals that would decide cases and settle inter-circuit conflicts. In 1998, the Commission on Structural Alternatives for the Federal Courts of Appeals reported on proposals to divide the Ninth Circuit. It recommended preserving the circuit for the western states but dividing the circuit's court of appeals into regional divisions, while a "Circuit Division" with a rotating membership of Ninth Circuit judges would settle differences between the divisions.
In the Judicial Code of 1948, Congress changed the title of the federal appellate courts to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the respective Circuit. The thirteen appellate courts today have a total of 179 judgeships.
Learn about the history and composition of the federal judicial circuits.
The U.S. Courts of Appeals and the Federal Judiciary