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U.S. Courts of Appeals and Their Impact on Your Life

What are the U.S. Courts of Appeals and what is their role?

What happens when the Supreme Court of the United States denies review of a case decided by one of the 13 Circuit Courts of Appeals? The simple answer is that the decision made by the particular Court of Appeals stands.  

What’s Different About This Activity?
  • Need-to-Know Information
  • Every Learning Style is Involved
  • Teen-Relevant Cases
  • Flexible Approach to Activities

The Supreme Court annually hears about 100 cases and rejects about 7,000 requests for review.  The decisions made by the Courts of Appeals in many of those cases are the last word. In light of that, Courts of Appeals have a major impact on the everyday life of law-abiding citizens, including teens. However, the Courts of Appeals aren’t as visible as the Supreme Court and they are not as widely known or understood.

This courtroom or classroom activity gives every student the opportunity to serve as an appellate judge and as an appellate lawyer to gain a working knowledge of these vital appellate courts. Use the teen-relevant cases decided by Courts of Appeals and the supporting resources to discover more about the U.S. Courts of Appeals’ place in the federal court system.

How to Use These Resources

Start by downloading the agenda and the complete activity package.

In Advance of the Activity

Teachers prepare students for the activity by covering the material in the Evarts Act, basic information about the Courts of Appeals, and cases you should know.

Activity Overview — Each Three, Teach Three

Students are organized into teams of three members for a round robin of modified, appellate court oral arguments. All students prepare and present as lawyers.  All students have the opportunity to serve on three-judge panels, just like the Courts of Appeals.

Round #1

Each Three-Person Team:

  • Prepares arguments for a case they choose from the provided list;
  • Anticipates and prepares questions (and answers) that the student-judges might use during the oral arguments.

Round #2

Each Three-Person Team

  • In Round #2, students switch roles and repeat the exercise with the lawyers serving as judges and the judges serving as lawyers.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

In the Courtroom or Classroom

Teams. To begin the activity, students form three-person teams. Teams stay together for the duration of the activity, and all team members have the opportunity to be judges and lawyers.

From the provided list, teams select one of the real-life cases of interest to them. They collect information about their case by doing Internet research. Once they organize and analyze the research, student-attorneys work with volunteer, adult attorneys to write talking points and questions and answers for the oral arguments. The same, three-person team develops arguments and questions for both sides of the issue.

Phase I

Student-Attorney Roles. Student Attorney #1 prepares arguments to present on behalf of the government’s position.  Student-Attorney #2 prepares arguments to present on behalf of the defendant’s position. Attorney #3 anticipates and writes the questions and answers the three-judge panel can use or modify when addressing each side during the hearing.

Written Arguments/Briefs. Panels make a copy of their talking points and Q/A sheets and give their folders to the facilitator. Student-attorneys keep their originals. The facilitator redistributes the materials to student-judges sitting on three-judge panels who will hear the arguments

Phase II

Student-Judge Roles. Student judges prepare for oral arguments by reading the student-attorney briefs distributed to them. They are to do no outside research or reading about the case in order to base their decision on their review of the  record that is put before them.

Student-Attorney Preparation. First, each team prepares to be attorneys who present their selected case to a  three-judge peer panel. For both sides of their case, the student attorneys 1) develop talking points for arguments; and 2) write questions and answers.

  1. Oral Arguments. Each three-person, student-attorney team presents arguments to its assigned, three-judge panel. The judges ask questions. They may use the questions drafted by the arguing team and/or add their own questions.
  2. Conference. The three-judge panels go into conference and decide which side prevails. They return to the courtroom.  Each panel announces its decision and the rationale for it.
  3. Wrap Up. The judge joins the students and conducts a mutual Q/A session with the students on the exercise and any topic of interest to the students. The question period is followed by informal socializing with the judge and the volunteer attorneys.