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United States Circuit Court

King Henry II instituted the custom of having judges ride around the countryside (“ride circuit”) each year to hear cases, rather than forcing everyone to bring their cases to London. Thus, the term “circuit court” is derived from the practice of having judges ride around the countryside each year on pre-set paths − circuits − to hear cases. Especially on the United States frontier, a judge might travel alone on horseback along with a group of lawyers. Abraham Lincoln was one such attorney who would ride the circuit in Illinois. Eventually the legal caseload in a county would become great enough to warrant the establishment of a local judiciary. Most of these local judicial circuits have been thus replaced by judges regularly stationed at local courthouses, but in many areas the legacy term remains in use.

Federal Courts of Appeals

In the United States, circuit courts were first established in the British Thirteen Colonies. In 1789, the United States circuit courts were United States federal courts established in each federal judicial district. These circuit courts exercised both original (first instance) and appellate jurisdiction. They existed until 1912. The original jurisdiction formerly exercised by the United States circuit courts is now exercised by the United States district courts. Their appellate jurisdiction is now exercised by the United States courts of appeals, which were known as the United States circuit courts of appeals from its establishment in 1894 until 1947.

The federal courts of appeals sit permanently in 13 appellate circuits (11 regional circuits as well as a DC Circuit and the Federal Circuit). Note that there are several other federal courts that bear the phrase “Court of Appeals” in their names, but they are not Article III courts and are not considered to sit in appellate circuits.

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The federal courts of appeals are intermediate courts, between the district courts (the federal trial courts) and the Supreme Court. Smaller circuits, such as the Second Circuit and Third Circuit, are based at a single federal courthouse, while others, such as the large Ninth Circuit, are spread across many courthouses. Since three-judge federal appellate panels are randomly selected from all sitting circuit judges, Ninth Circuit judges must often “ride the circuit,” though this duty has become much easier to carry out since the development of modern air travel.

Supreme Court of the United States

Under the original Judiciary Act of 1789 and subsequent acts, the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. had the responsibility of “riding circuit” and personally hearing intermediate appeals, in addition to their caseload back in the capital. This onerous duty was abolished by Congress with the Judiciary Act of 1891. The U.S. Supreme Court justices still retain vestiges of the days of riding circuit; each justice is designated to hear certain interlocutory appeals from specific circuits and can unilaterally decide them or refer them to the entire Court. The Court’s customary summer recess originated as the time during which the justices would leave Washington and ride circuit (since dirt roads were more passable in the summer).

State Courts

Many U.S. states have state courts called “circuit courts.” Most are trial courts of general, original jurisdiction. Source: Wikipedia

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