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The 5th 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 was created in 1891 and is based in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1981 the size of the court was reduced by breaking off Alabama, Georgia, and Florida’s districts into a new 11th Circuit court of appeals.
The 5th Circuit court is one of 12 regional and one special federal appeals courts. It has jurisdiction over districts in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. For about 40 years it also had jurisdiction in the Panama Canal Zone but that reverted to the government of Panama in the 1980s. The special Federal Circuit Court of Appeals that hears certain cases involving trade, patents, and similar issues.
There are 17 judges on the 5th 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 5th Circuit has nine such U.S. district courts, three in Louisiana, two in Mississippi and four in Texas. Cases that are decided by one of the federal district courts and appealed to the 5th 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.
Statistics for the 5th Circuit Court show over 7,500 cases filed annually for the past several years. About 4,500 cases continue pending at the end of each term. In the most recent data provided, the Supreme Court reviewed nine of the 5th Circuit’s decisions and reversed more than 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.
In the 1960s when the 5th Circuit court was comprised of Southern states from Georgia to Texas it was known as a trail blazing body that upheld civil rights. That legacy was revisited in 2014 when a restrictive voter I.D. law promulgated in Texas was struck down by 5th Circuit judges. Legislators had argued that requiring specific types of identification would thwart vote fraud but the Department of Justice and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund successfully argued that the law discriminated against racial minorities who were less likely to hold the specified types of identification.
In a widely-watched decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 5th Circuit’s ruling on access to abortion in June 2016. Texas legislators had passed a law requiring clinics performing abortions to meet hospital-like standards in building codes and admitting privileges to nearby hospitals. While a district court said the laws were unconstitutional the 5th Circuit sided with legislators to uphold the restrictive limits. Ultimately the Supreme Court decided that the regulations were simply barriers meant to prevent women from accessing abortion services and did not enhance medical safety standards.