North Carolina is a part of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, one of thirteen appellate circuit courts in the United States, which were initially set up by Congress in 1789. Besides the three North Carolina Districts—the Eastern District of North Carolina, the Middle District of North Carolina, and the Western District of North Carolina—all of the federal districts in Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia are also part of the Fourth Circuit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is located in Richmond, Virginia, however, judges from the Fourth Circuit sit in various cities within North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia. There are currently fifteen active judges and two senior judges who hear cases on appeal before the Fourth Circuit.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, like all federal appellate courts, handles only appeals from the federal district courts and federal agency decisions that took place within the Fourth Circuit. The U.S. Circuit Courts do not handle appeals from state courts directly. Cases are usually heard by three judge panels assembled at random at the time the case is filed. Cases are decided based on a majority vote of the panel. Once a final order is issued the parties have an option to petition the full Fourth Circuit Court to review the three judge panel’s decision “en banc” or petition for an appeal to of the decision to the next level court. Once a final order is issued by the Fourth Circuit, the parties can petition the United States Supreme Court to review either a three judge panel or en banc decision from the Fourth Circuit. Review, of circuit court rulings, in the U.S. Supreme Court is not automatic. At least four of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices must agree to hear the appeal. Currently, less than one percent of cases are granted review in the U.S. Supreme Court. Thus, in almost 99% of federal cases the circuit court decides the final appeal in the case.
The federal court system is completely different from the state court system in criminal cases in many ways. Federal trial courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, whereas state trial courts are courts of general jurisdiction. Federal criminal cases are brought by the United States Attorney’s Office or other federal prosecutors at the Department of Justice. Federal district court judges use the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Federal criminal cases are primarily brought for violations of federal law, although in limited circumstances cases involving both violations of federal and state law may be heard together in federal court. This is called pendant or supplemental jurisdiction. Similarly, the circuit courts use the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and only hear cases appealed from the federal bankruptcy courts, federal district courts or final administrative decisions of federal agencies.
Jurisdiction for civil cases in the federal system is also limited. Federal trial courts only hear civil cases involving a federal issue or question and/or cases where the parties are from different states or one state and a foreign country and where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.00. Federal district courts in civil cases use the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence.