Main content

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

What is the role of the U.S. Courts of Appeals in maintaining judicial impartiality and independence?

This distance-learning, 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 legal roles and functions. Use the teen-relevant Circuit Courts of Appeals cases and the supporting resources to discover the place of the circuit courts in the federal court system.

The appeals process is a defining feature of an independent and impartial judiciary. Litigants who are dissatisfied with the outcome at the trial court level can take their case to the appellate level where judges review the record for possible errors.

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

The Judiciary Act of 1891 created the structure and accessibility of appellate courts to make the right to appeal possible and feasible. The appellate process is a systemic way to ensure that the judiciary remains independent and impartial. 

To understand the important role of the 13 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals in the federal court system, think about what happens to the 7,000+ cases appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. When the high court takes about 100 cases a year, that means Courts of Appeals’ decisions are the final result.

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.

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.