First Circuit Court of Appeals

The 1st Circuit is a federal – level court of appeals based in Boston, Massachusetts. It is comprised of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and the territory of Puerto Rico. It is the smallest of the country’s 12 federal appellate courts with just six sitting justices (and an additional four senior justices).

The 1st Circuit is a regional federal appeals court that is beneath the U.S. Supreme Court in the judicial branch of government. In addition to the 12 regional appellate courts to which it belongs there is one Federal Circuit Court of Appeals that hears certain cases involving trade, patents, and similar issues. As they derive their authority from the Constitution, federal judges are designated Title III; they are named by the President, their appointments ratified by Congress and judges may sit on the court for life. Magistrate judges assist the circuit judges but their terms may vary.

In federal appeals courts, judges hear cases and render decisions as the jury system is not used.

At the federal level the circuit or appellate courts have jurisdiction over the 94 U.S. District Courts that are within their regions. In the 1st Circuit the federal district court is one of the oldest in the country, founded in 1789, and seated in Boston with Massachusetts having secondary divisions in Springfield and Worcester. Other federal district courts within the 1st Circuit include Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Puerto Rico.

A bankruptcy appellate panel of three judges also sits within the 1st Circuit, hearing appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. Five of the 12 U.S. circuit courts have a bankruptcy appeals court.

First Circuit Court Process

Cases heard in federal district court are both civil and criminal, whether deciding guilt or innocence on felony charges, those in which penalties exceed $75,000, or “diversity” cases involving residents from more than one state or country (such as class action lawsuits). A local “rule” requires civil litigants to attempt to resolve their dispute through mediation prior to going to trial. Litigants may also decide to waive a jury trial and have the case decided solely by a judge. If a party disagrees with a district court decision he may appeal it to the circuit court with jurisdiction.

The 1st Circuit appeals court has jurisdiction over the five district courts within its boundaries. Cases that are decided by one of the federal district courts and appealed to the 1st Circuit may go to the U.S. Supreme Court if the Supreme Court justices seek it out or if a party to the case successfully petitions the Supreme Court to review the circuit court’s decision.

1st Circuit Court Decisions

Statistics show that the Supreme Court receives a small portion of its caseload from the 1st Circuit, about 3 cases. Of those, 50 percent are overturned. The caseload of the 1st Circuit is about 1,400 per year with approximately equal numbers (500) of cases originating in the Massachusetts district and the district of Puerto Rico.

In recent years the 1st Circuit has rendered a decision upholding the Massachusetts District Court’s decision on behalf of consumers who claimed they were mislead by assertions made by the Vibram company about their glove-like “Five Fingers” footwear. Representing numerous plaintiffs from various states, they sought compensation for purchases made when the footwear was sold with claims that it enhanced muscles. After the district court found in favor of the consumers and ordered Vibram to pay $3.75 million to individuals, the award was appealed – not by the Vibram company but by the consumers who disagreed with the requirements (showing proof of purchase) and the payout they would receive (closer to $10 apiece than the $100 or more that the shoes sold for at retail). The 1st Circuit rejected the appeal.

Another notorious case before the 1st Circuit in 2016 is an appeal by the surviving “Marathon bomber” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose conviction and death penalty sentence was handed down by the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. In his appeal, the self-confessed bomber claims that the conviction should be invalidated because his trial was not moved to another venue, away from the media attention that the case received in Massachusetts.