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U.S. Courts of Appeals - Judicial Business 2016

Filings in the 12 regional courts of appeals rose 15 percent to 60,357 filings in 2016. Growth occurred in filings of criminal appeals and original proceedings. Reductions occurred in filings of civil appeals, bankruptcy appeals, and appeals of administrative agency decisions.

Appeals by pro se litigants, which constituted 52 percent of filings, rose 18 percent to 31,609 cases. Thirty-eight percent of all filings by pro se litigants were prisoner petitions. Eighty-eight percent of the 13,551 prisoner petitions received were filed pro se, as were 71 percent of the 13,758 original proceedings and miscellaneous applications.

Sixty-five percent of filings arose from cases originating in the U.S. district courts. Civil appeals, which amounted to 46 percent of total appellate court filings, decreased 2 percent to 27,837.

Table 1
U.S. Courts of Appeals
Appeals Filed, Terminated, and Pending
Fiscal Years 2012 - 2016
Year Authorized Judgeships Filed Number Filed Cases per Panel Terminated Number Terminated Cases per Panel Pending
2012 167 57,501 1,033 57,570 1,034 43,588
2013 167 56,475 1,015 58,393 1,049 41,979
2014 167 54,988 988 55,216 992 41,323
2015 167 52,698 947 53,213 956 40,6621
2016 167 60,357 1,084 57,744 1,037 43,275
Percent Change 2015 - 2016 - 14.5% - 8.5% - 6.4%
Note: This table excludes data for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
1 Revised.

Original proceedings filed in the appellate courts soared 188 percent to 13,758 and equaled 23 percent of total filings. Most of the original proceedings were filed after the Supreme Court of the United States held in Welch v. United States that its earlier ruling in Johnson v. United States, which declared the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act to be unconstitutionally vague, applied retroactively, thereby allowing prisoners serving sentences enhanced under that clause to have their sentences vacated or remanded (for more information on these decisions, click here).  When prisoners seek leave from the appellate courts to file successive habeas corpus petitions in the district courts, these petitions are docketed as original proceedings.

Criminal appeals, which accounted for 19 percent of total filings in the appeals courts, remained constant, increasing 1 percent to 11,536. Appeals in cases involving violent crimes, embezzlement, drugs other than marijuana, firearms, traffic, and sex offenses rose. Appeals in cases related to property, fraud, marijuana, justice system offenses, immigration, general offenses, and regulatory offenses decreased.

Administrative agency appeals dropped 9 percent in 2016 to 6,469 and represented 11 percent of total appeals court filings. Appeals of Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decisions, which fell 12 percent, accounted for 81 percent of administrative agency appeals. Fifty-nine percent of BIA appeals were filed in the Ninth Circuit, and 14 percent were filed in the Second Circuit. Appeals of decisions by the National Labor Relations Board decreased 2 percent to 370.

Bankruptcy appeals declined 10 percent and constituted 1 percent of total appellate filings.

Case terminations increased 9 percent to 57,744. As filings exceeded terminations, pending cases increased 6 percent to 43,275.

Since 2012, filings in the courts of appeals have grown 5 percent, primarily due to an increase of 223 percent in original proceedings. Criminal appeals filings have fallen 16 percent. Administrative agency appeals have declined 23 percent. Overall, prisoner petitions have dropped 10 percent. Bankruptcy appeals have fallen 7 percent.

For data on the activity of the U.S. Courts of Appeals, see the B series of tables.

Supreme Court Decisions Impact Activity by Federal Prisoners

Under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), defendants found guilty of firearms offenses could receive enhanced sentences when they previously had been convicted at least three times for violent felonies. The ACCA originally defined a "violent felony" as any crime that involved "the use of physical force against the person of another," "is burglary, arson, or extortion," "involves use of explosives," or "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." The part of the definition related to potential risk of physical injury was called the “residual clause.”

Samuel James Johnson pled guilty to weapons charges. He received an enhanced sentence on the grounds that his being a felon in possession of a sawed-off shotgun constituted a violent felony under the residual clause of ACCA. However, the Supreme Court of the United States subsequently held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), that the residual clause violated the Fifth Amendment by being so vague that it failed to give fair notice of conduct for which a person might be punished.

On April 18, 2016, the Supreme Court declared in Welch v. United States, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), that the ruling in Johnson v. United States that the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague applied retroactively. Therefore, prisoners serving sentences enhanced under the residual clause were entitled to have their sentences vacated or remanded, and many prisoners took action. For the 12-month period ending September 30, 2016, filings of original proceedings in the U.S. courts of appeals surged 188 percent (when prisoners seek leave from the appellate courts to file successive habeas corpus petitions in the district courts, these petitions are docketed as original proceedings). In the U.S. district courts, filings of cases with the United States as defendant increased 55 percent, and filings of prisoner petitions grew 197 percent, as motions to vacate sentence soared 350 percent. Most of this growth occurred in the months after Welch v. United States was decided.

In November 2016, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Beckles v. United States, which addresses issues such as whether the ruling in Johnson applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging sentences enhanced under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. The outcome of that case may further affect filings of prisoner petitions.

Table 2
U.S. Courts of Appeals
Sources of Appeals
Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016
  2015 2016 Percent Change
Total 52,698 60,357 14.5%
U.S. District Courts      
     Criminal 11,380 11,536 1.4%
     Civil—Total 28,550 27,837 -2.5%
     Prisoner Petitions 13,900 13,551 -2.5%
     U.S. Civil 2,748 2,515 -8.5%
     Private Civil 11,902 11,771 -1.1%
Other Appeals      
Bankruptcy 841 757 -10.0%
Administrative Agency 7,141 6,469 -9.4%
Original Proceedings 4,786 13,758 187.5%
Note: This table excludes data for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Bankruptcy Appellate Panels

Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are three-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. BAPs are units of the federal courts of appeals, and each BAP must be established by a federal judicial circuit. Five federal judicial circuits—the First, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits—have BAPs.

Total filings in the BAPs declined 9 percent (down 61 appeals) to 635 in 2016, with reductions occurring in four of the five circuits with BAPs. This was the lowest number of BAP filings reported since 2008. BAP filings tend to lag behind bankruptcy filings by about two years, so the decrease in BAP filings in 2016 likely reflected the continued decline in petitions filed in the U.S. bankruptcy courts after 2013.

The largest percentage reductions were drops of 27 percent in both the Tenth Circuit (down 18 appeals) and Eighth Circuit (down 13 appeals). Filings declined 7 percent in both the Ninth Circuit (down 31 appeals) and First Circuit (down 5 appeals). The Sixth Circuit saw an increase of six filings.

Since 2012, BAP filings have fallen 40 percent (down 416 appeals). All five BAP circuits reported reductions in filings over this period, with the Ninth Circuit having the greatest numeric decline, a drop of 283 appeals (down 40 percent). The Tenth Circuit had 65 fewer appeals (down 58 percent), the Eighth Circuit had 36 fewer appeals (down 51 percent), the First Circuit had 27 fewer appeals (down 29 percent), and the Sixth Circuit had 5 fewer appeals (down 8 percent).

For data on the activity of the BAPs, see Table BAP-1 and Table BAP-2.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

The jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is defined by subject matter rather than by geographic boundaries. This court is responsible for appeals involving customs and patents; rulings by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Court of International Trade, and U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; and decisions by several federal administrative bodies.

Filings in the Federal Circuit rose 8 percent to 1,840 (up by 130 cases). Total filings per panel went up from 428 to 460. Increases were spread across many types of appeals, with the largest numeric growth occurring for the third consecutive year in appeals of decisions by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which climbed by 231 to 642 (up 56 percent).

The largest numeric reduction was in appeals of decisions by the U.S. district courts, which fell by 71 to 561 (down 11 percent). Filings of petitions by the Merit Systems Protection Board decreased by 27 to 231 (down 10 percent).

Terminations of cases increased 11 percent to 1,678. As filings exceeded terminations, the number of pending cases grew 13 percent to 1,457.

Filings in the Federal Circuit were 33 percent higher in 2016 than in 2012 (up 459 cases). Over the past five years, the circuit has received more appeals of decisions by the PTO, which likely has occurred in response to the America Invents Act of 2011. Over the past five years, case terminations have risen 23 percent (up 309 appeals) and pending cases have grown 42 percent (up 433 appeals).

For data on the activity of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, see Table B-8.