Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is a federal-level appellate court that sits below the U.S. Supreme Court in the judicial branch of American government. The court is seated in Richmond, Virginia.

Fifth Circuit Court Structure and Function

The 4th Circuit court is one of 12 regional and one special federal appeals courts. It has jurisdiction over nine districts in North Carolina and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and Maryland. The special Federal Circuit Court of Appeals hears certain cases involving trade, patents, and similar issues.

There are 15 judges on the 4th Circuit bench. In federal appeals courts, judges hear cases and render decisions as the jury system is not used. The judges are referred to as Title III because their positions were created by that portion of the Constitution. Federal judges are appointed by the President, approved by Congress and may occupy their position on the court for life. Magistrate judges assist the circuit judges but their terms may vary.

At the federal level the circuit or appellate courts have jurisdiction over the 94 U.S. District Courts that are within their regions. The 4th Circuit has jurisdiction over nine district court regions including one in Maryland, three in North Carolina, one in South Carolina, two in Virginia and two in West Virginia. Cases that are appealed to the 4th 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.

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). Litigants may 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.

Fourth Circuit Court Caseload

Statistics for the 4th Circuit Court show over 4,700 cases filed annually for the past several years. About 2,500 cases are held over to the next year’s sessions and an average of nearly 5,000 terminated for various reasons. Each judge writes about 230 decisions per session. In the most recent data provided, the Supreme Court reviewed six of the 4th Circuit’s decisions and reversed half. It is not unusual for an appellate court to see more than 50 percent of its judgements reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fourth Circuit Court Notable Cases

The issue of police use of force was addressed by the 4th Circuit Court in a 2016 decision about a mentally ill man who was approached by police in 2011. Apparently police who were sent to take the man to a mental health facility couldn’t persuade him to let go of a street sign so they used a taser on him, which contributed to his death. The 4th Circuit ruled that use of a taser on a person who is not a threat to police violates the 4th Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The decision, called a “rule,” applies to the districts within the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction, prompting police departments to tighten policies on the use of nonlethal weapons by officers.

Schools that receive federal funding cannot discriminate against students based on gender, the 4th Circuit Court ruled in 2016. The controversial decision was a boost to transgender rights which had been under fire when student Gavin Grimm, who was born female, sued his school district for the right to use bathrooms designated for males. The decision was made around the same time that the North Carolina governor filed a bill to restrict bathroom use to a person’s biological identity, which created much controversy across the country, stoked by LGBT rights activists.