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Circuit courts are court systems in several common law jurisdictions. The core concept of circuit courts requires judges to travel to different locales to ensure wide visibility and understanding of cases in a region. More generally, some modern circuit courts may also refer to a court that merely holds trials for cases of multiple locations in some rotation.
The term "circuit court" is derived from the English custom of having judges ride around the countryside each year on pre-set paths - circuits - to hear cases. It was long assumed that circuits originated with the eyre in common pleas during the reign of King Henry II, but during the late 1950s, English legal historians (e.g., Ralph Pugh) recognized that the eyre's "connection with later circuit justices is rather collateral than lineal." The eyre was merely one of a number of experiments in "systematized itinerant justice" undertaken by the English crown during the late 12th century and the 13th century. In 1293, a statute was enacted which formally defined four assize circuits.
On the American frontier, a judge often traveled on horseback along with a group of lawyers. Abraham Lincoln was one such attorney who regularly rode the circuit in Illinois. In more settled areas, a stagecoach would be used. Eventually, the legal caseload in a county would become great enough to warrant the establishment of a local judiciary. Most of these local judicial circuits (that is, in terms of the actual routes traveled by judges) have been thus replaced by judges regularly stationed at local courthouses, but in many areas, the legacy term remains in use.
England and Wales is divided into six regions or circuits for the purposes of the administration of justice.
The system is overseen by the Lord Chancellor. The membership consists of High Court Judges, Circuit Judges, District Judges, law practitioners and academic lawyers. The Circuits also form the basis for administration of the Bar in England and Wales except for Cheshire. Until 2007 for court administration purposes it formed part of the Wales and Chester Circuit. When in 2007 it became part of the Northern Circuit for court administrative purposes post devolution, the "Wales and Chester Circuit" continued to be the Circuit Bar. The Circuit Bars are represented on the Bar Council through the Circuit Leaders.
In the Republic of Ireland the Circuit Court is part of the Courts of First Instance, senior to the District Court but junior to the High Court (Ireland). It was first established as the Circuit Court of Justice under the Courts of Justice Act 1924 and replaced the County Court on the civil side, and Quarter Sessions and Recorder's Courts on the criminal side, as well as some of the jurisdiction of the assizes. These are heard by a judge sitting alone. It also has jurisdiction to hear appeals from the District Court. Appeals from the Court lie to the High Court on the civil side and the Court of Criminal Appeal on the criminal side.
The Circuit Court is so called because of the circuits on which its judges travel, namely Dublin, Cork, Northern, Western, Eastern, South Western, South Eastern, and Midland, each of which are composed of a number of counties. The court consist of a President and thirty-seven judges. Although there is strictly speaking just one Circuit Court, a sitting of the Circuit Court in any particular location is referred to as name of town Circuit Court, e.g. Trim Circuit Court.
The High Court also sits "on circuit" twice yearly, though this is called the High Court on Circuit rather than a circuit court. In this case, "on circuit" means sitting in a location other than Dublin.
In the United States, circuit courts were first established in the British Thirteen Colonies. In 1789, the United States circuit courts were United States federal courts established in each federal judicial district. These circuit courts exercised both original (first instance) and appellate jurisdiction. They existed until 1912. The original jurisdiction formerly exercised by the United States circuit courts is now exercised by the United States district courts. Their appellate jurisdiction is now exercised by the United States courts of appeals, which were known as the United States circuit courts of appeals from their establishment in 1894 until 1947.
The federal courts of appeals sit permanently in 13 appellate circuits (11 regional circuits as well as a DC Circuit and the Federal Circuit). Note that there are several other federal courts that bear the phrase "Court of Appeals" in their names, but they are not Article III courts and are not considered to sit in appellate circuits.
The federal courts of appeals are intermediate courts, between the district courts (the federal trial courts) and the Supreme Court. Smaller circuits, such as the Second Circuit and Third Circuit, are based at a single federal courthouse, while others, such as the large Ninth Circuit, are spread across many courthouses. Since three-judge federal appellate panels are randomly selected from all sitting circuit judges, Ninth Circuit judges must often "ride the circuit," though this duty has become much easier to carry out since the development of modern air travel.
Under the original Judiciary Act of 1789 and subsequent acts, the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. had the responsibility of "riding circuit" and personally hearing both appeals and trials in the circuit courts, in addition to their caseload back in the capital. This particular duty was abolished by Congress with the Judiciary Act of 1891. The U.S. Supreme Court justices still retain vestiges of the days of riding circuit; each justice is designated to hear certain interlocutory appeals from specific circuits and can unilaterally decide them or refer them to the entire court. The court's customary summer recess originated as the time during which the justices would leave Washington and ride circuit (since dirt roads were more passable in the summer).
In many states, such as Missouri, a judicial circuit can encompass one or more counties (see Missouri Circuit Courts). Each circuit court can have several divisions, including circuit, associate, small claims, probate, family, or drug court. Each division hears cases within its particular area of subject-matter jurisdiction, and jurisdiction is based on the size or type of a civil claim or the severity or type of a criminal charge. Drug court, for example, hears only drug-related criminal cases.
Several U.S. states have state supreme courts that traditionally "ride the circuit" in the sense of hearing oral arguments at multiple locations throughout their jurisdictions each year. Among the states with circuit-riding supreme courts are Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington.