The United States courts of appeals (or circuit courts) are the intermediate 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.
There currently are thirteen United States courts of appeals, although there are other tribunals (such as the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which hears appeals in court-martial cases, and the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which reviews final decisions by the Board of Veterans' Appeals in the Department of Veterans Affairs) that have “Court of Appeals” in their titles. The eleven “numbered” circuits and the D.C. Circuit are geographically defined. The thirteenth court of appeals is the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has nationwide jurisdiction over certain appeals based on subject matter. All of the courts of appeals also hear appeals from some administrative agency decisions and rulemaking, with by far the largest share of these cases heard by the D.C. Circuit. 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, as well as appeals from the district courts in patent cases and certain other specialized matters.
Decisions of the U.S. courts of appeals have been published by the private company West Publishing in the Federal Reporter series since the courts were established. Not every court decision is available, however. Only decisions that the courts designate for publication are included; “unpublished” opinions (of all but the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits) are nevertheless included in West's Federal Appendix, and are also available in online databases like Lexis or Westlaw. More recently, case decisions are also available electronically on the official websites of the courts themselves.
The circuit with the smallest 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 28 U.S.C. § 44.
Although the courts of appeals are frequently referred to as “circuit courts”, they should not be confused with the historical United States circuit courts, which existed from 1789 to 1911 and were primarily trial courts.