Congress through the Judiciary Act of 1891 originally established the intermediate appellate courts in the federal judiciary to relieve the caseload on the Supreme Court justices. Prior to 1891, cases were appealed routinely to the Supreme Court, which was required in most cases to hear the appeal. The courts of appeals now have jurisdiction to hear appeals from the federal district courts in virtually all cases. Unlike the Supreme Court, courts of appeals do not have discretionary jurisdiction to decide whether to grant an appeal. Other Acts of Congress have expanded the jurisdiction of the courts of appeals to hear appeals of decisions of federal administrative agencies. Courts of appeals also have a number of additional administrative functions that have been directed by Congress.
The federal court system currently consists of 12 regional circuits, each with one court of appeals. Eleven of these circuits are numbered (for example, the Fifth Circuit governs Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana). The twelfth circuit, the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, governs only Washington, D. C., but hears a number of cases involving federal agencies. Congress in 1982 created the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which combined the functions of the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the United States Court of Claims. The Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction, unlike the regional circuits, is nationwide, though it only applies to areas of law that are dictated by Congress.