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Origins of the Federal Court System

Judiciary Act of 1789 and the Lower Federal Courts

How many judges on the Court of Appeals hear individual cases?

Most cases that reach the federal appeals courts are heard by panels of three judges. Sometimes the panel consists of three federal appeals court judges and sometimes it is composed of two federal appeals court judges and a district court judge within that circuit.

When a party loses a case before a three-judge panel, the losing party can then appeal for full-panel, or en banc, review. En banc review means that the full panel of non-retired members of the federal appeals court will sit and hear the case. This number generally ranges from eleven to fifteen. Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, Rule 35, provides: “An en banc hearing or rehearing is not favored and ordinarily will not be granted unless: (1) en banc consideration is necessary to secure or maintain uniformity of the court’s decisions; or (2) the proceeding involves a question of extreme importance.” There is no exact science as to when a court might grant en banc review. But Rule 35 offers two possibilities—when the panel decision conflicts with an earlier panel decision or when the case is extremely important.



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