Who are the U.S. Courts of Appeals?

Lately, there has been a number of stories about unsuccessful Obama attempts to appoint his choice of judges to the U.S. Courts of Appeals. Charlie Savage has criticized Obama (and I agree) that Obama has simply not made judicial appointments a priority.  First, in 2011, Goodwin Liu, a UC Berkeley law professor withdrew his nomination to the Ninth Circuit after Republicans in the Senate successfully filibustered him, the only filibuster since George W. Bush's first term.  The objection was Liu was too liberal and that some future Democratic president might put him on the Supreme Court later.

The second casualty of Senate gridlock was Caitlan Halligan, a lawyer from New York who was to be appointed to the DC Circuit, whom the Republicans in the Senate successfully filibustered not once, but twice.  We shall see what happens to Sri Srinavasan.  The use of the filibuster to block judicial nominations is a new tactic, trotted out really since George W. Bush's administration.  One would be naive to think the Democrats will also resort to this tactic when they are in the minority.  But the deployment of the filibuster has meant that neither Liu nor Halligan ever got an up or down vote in the Senate. 

None of these battles are over Supreme Court nominations. But what are these courts that virtually no one except court insiders have heard of? Here they are.  The U.S. Courts of Appeals are the level of the federal courts right below the Supreme Court.  As you can see from the map, their jurisdiction conforms to state boundaries.  Unlike the Supreme Court, they do not have the luxury of certiorari, meaning they cannot pick and choose what cases to hear like the Supreme Court; they must adjudicate all cases properly appealed to them.  Their rulings are only valid in their jurisdictions, not the whole country like the Supreme Court's rulings. 

Take a good look--effectively these are the courts of last resort for most people since the Supreme Court only adjudicates 80 or so cases each year among the 7,000+ appealed to it. If the Supreme Court does not grant your case certiorari or agree to hear the case, the decision of the last court stands; often that is one of the U.S. Courts of Appeals.

There are 11 circuits plus the Federal Circuit and the DC Circuit.  These represent the battlegrounds now for judicial nominations.