There are many questions (and answers) on this site pertaining to circuit splits.

It is also my understanding that rulings/interpretations made by courts are binding on all lower courts within their circuit until repealed by a higher court.

My question is fairly simple:

Why have circuits in the first place?

All they seem to do is enable this awkward circuit-split situation to arise at which point people cease to be equal under the law because the law has been interpreted differently in different parts of the country - which might not even be in their state.

Surely it makes more sense to either abolish the circuits entirely, and have all decisions by higher courts binding on all lower courts regardless of state, or, if you want to take a states' rights approach, limit the scope of these decisions to the state in which they were made.

This half-way house seems somewhat intolerable and I'm unable to discern any particular merit.

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    Circuit splits are not related to state's rights (at least not directly), federal courts of appeal (mostly) interpret federal law and the Constitution where state boundaries do not matter, and their decisions are not binding upon state courts.
    – xngtng
    Dec 10, 2022 at 17:39
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    @xngtng - That's kind of part of my point though, the only logical-ish way I could think to square it would've been that, and even that doesn't make sense Dec 10, 2022 at 22:48
  • @xngtng federal court decisions at all levels, including appeals courts and district courts, are binding on state courts in individual cases, and precedential decisions of appeals courts bind the courts of the states within the circuit.
    – phoog
    Dec 11, 2022 at 0:22
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    @phoog law.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/… Federal courts can essentially invalidate state decisions in certain cases if they also have jurisdiction or can grant other reliefs e.g. via habeas corpus in criminal cases, and some circuit courts said they should be binding over state courts, I'm not aware any state courts explicitly recognize the authority and federal courts itself have few tools to enforce it if it has no jurisdiction to reconsider (other than by appeal from the state to Supreme Court, who will end circuit split).
    – xngtng
    Dec 11, 2022 at 0:50

4 Answers 4


Since you don't present alternatives to the division of the federal judiciary into circuits, I will consider the options that I can envision and which are undoubtably within the power of Congress to make happen:

  1. simply having all appeals from federal district trial courts go directly to the Supreme Court of the United States;
  2. maintaining the intermediate appellate jurisdiction of the current courts of appeal for the federal circuits, but merge them into a single, intermediate, nation-wide appellate court, which would comprise approximately 180 judges.

I admit this is opinion, but you do ask why, and to me, these both seem unmanageable.

  1. If appeals from district courts were directly to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court would have to be massively expanded to handle the non-discretionary appeal workload flowing from the district trial courts. Further, the composition of the panels that hear any particular case would vary dramatically, so the jurisprudence may develop less consistently. It would also suffer the same problems as the second option.
  2. It would be a huge logistical burden to manage the overlapping and duplicated issues arriving at a nation-wide intermediate appellate court with largely mandatory jurisdiction. Even within the circuits today (the largest comprising 29 judges), there are occasionally judgments that are released near in time to each other with inconsistent reasoning. This problem would be massively amplified in a nation-wide intermediate appellate court. Instead of circuit splits (which helpfully confine the effect of disagreement), there would simply be inconsistent judgments being released. This would pose rule-of-law concerns, appearance of arbitrariness, and there would have to be some rule about whether the first-released judgment or most-recently-released judgment has precedential force.

I also recognize a potential third option, but its availability to Congress is debatable, and this option doesn't answer the question "why have circuits?" The option would be that Congress would legislate a rule of stare decisis that federal circuits are bound by the precedent of other circuits, arguably under the Necessary and Proper Clause (John Harrison, "The Power of Congress over the Rules of Precedent" (2000); Martha Dragich, "Uniformity, Inferiority, and the Law of the Circuit Doctrine" (2010)). However, this assumes that the rules of stare decisis are not exclusively left to the judiciary itself to develop. It is possible that an attempt by Congress to legislate how the judiciary is to decide cases would constitute an invasion of the judicial sphere and would threaten judicial independence (a concern acknowledged, but responded to by Harrison and Dragich). The United State Supreme Court sees the "obligation" of one circuit to follow the rulings of another circuit to be a "matter of comity only" and "not the 'compulsion of stare decisis'". But even if this option were taken up by Congress, it doesn't answer the question: "why have circuits in the first place?"

Note, the federal circuits are a division of the federal judiciary, so the conception of states' rights has no application to reasoning about the organization of the circuits. The interest in states' rights finds expression in the distinct state court systems that are separate from the federal judiciary.

  • 2
    There's another possibility: keep the many separate appeals courts, but have precedent set in any of them apply to all of them.
    – phoog
    Dec 11, 2022 at 0:29
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    @Jen - I was thinking exactly what Phoog said, would you mind elaborating on your point of stare decisis in your answer somewhat as this seems the obvious solution to me. If you could do that, I think your answer covers my question very well and I'll mark it as accepted Dec 11, 2022 at 13:09
  • Since a circuit always goes to a specific justice, why not have them go into a pool so that (in theory) you could get any justice reviewing the case instead of a specific one for that circuit?
    – CJ Dennis
    Dec 12, 2022 at 22:58

While the answer by Jen does a good job explaining why some possible alternative structures for US courts of appeal (circuit courts) would be unworkable, the real reason why we have such courts is their historical origin.

In the United states, Justices of the Supreme Court regularly traveled through the country. They would stop at particular locations, and hold court together with the local judge of a district court as a two-judge court. Appeals from district court decisions were heard. Some were passed along to the full Supreme Court, particularly ones in which the Justice did not agree with the judge.

Each Justice had a route, or "circuit" which that Justice covered once or twice a year on horseback (or by carriage) spending half or more of his time "riding circuit". The process was quite onerous, and was by far the larger part of the work of a Justice. It allowed decisions to be reviewed by a Supreme Court member at places physically closer to the original trials, and served as a filter on cases to be decided by the full court.

This practice was derived from the older English practice of having Justices in Iter (later known as circuit judges) who traveled through the country, judging cases that had been held awaiting their arrival. (The word "Iter" is related to "Itinerary", the list of places one is scheduled to visit.)

The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, 1815-1835 by G. Edward White (ISBN 978-0195070590) includes a detailed description of the process of circuit riding during the period of 1815-1835, and the way in which proceeding in the circuit courts influenced constitutional jurisprudence and how cases came to the Supreme Court. I recommend this extensive book for better understanding of the origins of many features of the US Judicial system.

Some years after the US Civil war the Circuit Courts officially became the Courts of Appeals and Supreme Court justices stopped "riding circuit", but the geographical divisions continued to be called "circuits", and each circuit is still supervised by a single Justice, who rules on "emergency" applications, often for stays of judgement, or for injunctions.

The division of the US court system into circuits thus is due as much to historical inertia as to careful design, although an alternate design that was an improvement would not be easy to create.

  • Why? Australia has Federal circuit courts but their precedents are universally binding unless and until reviewed by the high court.
    – Dale M
    Dec 10, 2022 at 22:15
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    @Dale. I don't know enough about the Australian judicial system to evaluate how it works and how it might be applied in the US. Perhaps it could work in the US. But ineretia alone makes such changes hard to accomplish. Dec 11, 2022 at 2:56

Why have circuits in the first place?

How courts are organized is mostly an issue of efficient and effective administration of justice, while balancing the ideals of justice itself (e.g. consistency, fair and equal treatment etc.). It is the reason why there is an intermediate level of courts in the first place and not every case is reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Surely it makes more sense to either abolish the circuits entirely, and have all decisions by higher courts binding on all lower courts regardless of state

Separate circuit courts on the same level means no circuit's decision is binding on another and a circuit court only needs to consider stare decisis for its own decisions, subject to binding precedents from the Supreme Court. A single court of appeal means that this court can overturn the previous decisions of itself.

Asking almost 200 judges to be consistent among themselves in the >44,000 cases they consider every year (out of which >26,000 are terminated on merits of the case) is a daunting if not impossible task.

And imagine this before the availability of instantaneous transmission and publication of decisions.

Of course, it is a hard job within circuits as well, and usually it is helped by the fact that lawyers on both sides intensively research on issues of importance. Eliminating the circuit would also increase the amount of research needed and slow down the court process even further.

The justice system must make a decision between the ideal of a uniform, consistent, predictable law, and the ideal of efficient justice administration. For example, the appeal rights from small claim courts are often limited. This is not because small claims courts make the correct decision every time, but filling up the court system with small value cases is detrimental to the administration of justice as a whole if other more important issues cannot be promptly resolved.

In the end, practically, you would either need to restrict the number of appeals considered (like the U.S. Supreme Court does), or divide the appeal courts into circuits. Different judges in the trial court already differ on their decisions, but important issues are hopefully uniform within the circuit, and then the most important of the issues are decided uniformly across the nation by the Supreme Court.

or, if you want to take a states' rights approach, limit the scope of these decisions to the state in which they were made.

This does not seem to solve any issues. Federal courts of appeal (mostly) interpret federal law and the Constitution where state boundaries do not matter, and their decisions are not binding upon state courts. Of course, like said above, a balance must be found between uniform federal law and efficiency and effectiveness of the justice system. But dividing into 50 circuits for each state does not necessarily improve the efficiency if the number of judges is not sufficient and contentious issues have to be argued and resolved repeatedly in 50 states.

This half-way house seems somewhat intolerable and I'm unable to discern any particular merit.

All this being said, I am not denying the problems and seeming bizarreness of circuit split. There are a lot of improvements that can be made to the U.S. justice system (or the justice system of any country).

Any large country (U.S., China, Brazil) or countries with concurrent jurisdictions (e.g. Canada and Switzerland) necessarily have different courts interpret the same law differently, although all systems try to resolve important contentious issues (e.g. through the grant of appeal to a higher court, or issuance of judicial interpretation orders).

It should also be noted that longstanding circuit splits (or similar phenomenon) are not the responsibility of the judicial system alone. For many questions, the Congress also has the power to make and clarify federal laws.

  • "Federal courts of appeal (mostly) interpret federal law and the Constitution where state boundaries do not matter, and their decisions are not binding upon state courts": that is incorrect. State courts must abide by precedent set by the circuit court. This is most notably at issue in the application of the bill of rights.
    – phoog
    Dec 11, 2022 at 0:33
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    @phoog Federal court decisions take precedence over state ones, so often there can be a federal lawsuit in constitutional cases that will be subject to circuit court decisions. But they are not binding precedents in state courts. I do think it would be reasonable for state courts to defer to federal rulings like the federal courts must defer to state supreme courts. But I think it is rather an issue when there is circuit split. Circuits are simply administrative creations of the Congress, if some day the Congress moves a state to another circuit, changing binding precedents would be strange.
    – xngtng
    Dec 11, 2022 at 1:01
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    @phoog: That is not true either. If the circuit court makes an Eerie guess, the state supreme court is entirely free to disagree with the circuit court in a subsequent case.
    – Kevin
    Dec 12, 2022 at 0:42

From the legal perspective, the only answer is "because that's how it was set up". It was set up via the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat 73, §2.

And be it further enacted, That the United States shall be, and they hereby are divided into thirteen districts, to be limited and called as follows, to wit: one to consist of that part of the State of Massachusetts which lies easterly of the State of New Hampshire, and to be called Maine District; one to consist of the State of New Hampshire, and to be called New Hampshire District; (c) one to consist of the remaining part of the State of Massachusetts, and to be called Massachusetts district; one to consist of the State of Connecticut, and to be called Connecticut District; one to consist of the State of New York, and to be called New York District; one to consist of the State of New Jersey, and to be called New Jersey District; one to consist of the State of Pennsylvania, and to be called Pennsylvania District; one to consist of the State of Delaware, and to be called Delaware District; one to consist of the State of Maryland, and to be called Maryland District; one to consist of the State of Virginia, except that part called the District of Kentucky, and to be called Virginia District; one to consist of the remaining part of the State of Virginia, and to be called Kentucky District; one to consist of the State of South Carolina, and to be called South Carolina District; and one to consist of the State of Georgia, and to be called Georgia District.

The previous section established the details of the Supreme Court whose existence was provided for in the Constitution (the act defines a quorum, the structure of SCOTUS, and the timing of sessions). The decision to have inferior courts was a political one, motivated by practicality, but since this was one of the first things that Congress did, you should take it to be self-evident at the time that there should be inferior courts. An actual interesting political-historical question is, why not have half as many courts, e.g. forcing New York and New Jersey to share a single district.

The terminology and structure of the inferior courts changed over time, again for practical reasons. Some of the history is summarized here, with references to the Judiciary Act of 1891, the Circuit Courts of Appeals Act, or the Judicial Code of 1911. The Federal Courts Improvement Act was passed in 1982, again tweaking the federal court system.

Perhaps your question is really "when (why) did Congress first create an inferior jurisdiction that included more than one state?".

  • 1
    ... did they forget about North Carolina and Rhode Island?
    – D M
    Dec 11, 2022 at 1:46
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    The act was passed before those states ratified the Constitution (it was enacted by Congress Sept. 24 1789).
    – user6726
    Dec 11, 2022 at 2:41
  • Weird, Maine was a judicial district before it was a state.
    – Flydog57
    Dec 12, 2022 at 16:26
  • @DM Vermont is also missing, because it was still part of New York until a few years later. Dec 12, 2022 at 17:28

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