Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made international headlines by unanimously striking down President Trump’s January 27th executive order on immigration.
In all the publicity surrounding the ruling, many locals may have learned for the first time that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is headquartered right here in San Francisco—within the James R. Browning Courthouse, at 7th and Mission streets.
As a federal court, the Ninth Circuit is responsible for deciding both constitutional disputes and those in which the United States is party. Trump's “travel ban” fit both qualifications, and after it was initially struck down by a federal judge in Seattle, the ruling was appealed to a higher court—the Ninth Circuit.
In their decision, a panel of three Ninth Circuit judges wrote that the executive order violated the rights of the plaintiffs—the states of Washington and Minnesota—who have “an interest in the free flow of travel, in avoiding separation of families, and in freedom from discrimination.”
The travel ban ruling was not the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ first time on the national stage. In 2014, the court struck down bans on same-sex marriage in California, Idaho and Nevada; in 2002, it ruled that requiring public school students to recite “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violated the constitutional separation of church and state. (The latter ruling was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court.)
Those decisions have earned it a reputation as a “liberal” court, but “the Ninth Circuit is no more politically slanted one way or the other than any other circuit court in the nation,” says Scott Dodson, a law professor and associate dean for research at UC Hastings.
While the politically left-leaning state of California dominates the court, making up a quarter of the districts in the region, federal judges receive lifetime appointments from the president.
Their affiliations, Dodson says, typically ally with the party of the leader that appointed them, and they can only be removed via impeachment for egregious misconduct.
72 percent of the 29 active judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals were appointed by Democratic presidents. But the Ninth Circuit is also the largest of the nation’s 12 regional Federal District Appeals Courts, which means its roster of seven Republican-appointee judges is larger than the total number of judges on many other circuit courts. (The First Circuit, for example, only has six judges.)
And with four seats currently vacant, it may receive even more conservative appointees from President Trump.
The Ninth Circuit is also frequently maligned for being unwieldy, as it's almost twice the size of the country's next-largest federal circuit—the Fifth, located in the southeast. One in six Americans, and almost half of the nation’s ethnic minorities, are served by the Ninth Circuit.
First created in 1891 to serve the country’s western reaches, the Ninth Circuit was initially given jurisdiction over a large swath of land, but a small population. Over a century later, that region, which includes nine states and two territories (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), has swelled to a population of 54 million.
The Ninth Circuit has the judges needed to keep up with its extensive caseload, but political efforts have occasionally surfaced to break up the court into smaller districts.
“There’s not really a justification for breaking it up,” says Dodson. “I don’t see any reason for it to occur now.”
Because of its size, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals tends to see a number of important cases. President Trump's revised “travel ban," signed on March 6th, will face its first legal challenge from the state of Hawaii, located in the ninth regional federal district. If the ruling is appealed, the case will land in the lap of the Ninth Circuit.
Due to its size, the Ninth Circuit has had a disproportionate number of its decisions appealed to the Supreme Court. Between 2010 and 2015, 79 percent of the Ninth Circuit's rulings were overturned; the national average for circuit courts is 70 percent.
While this is sometimes used as further evidence of the Ninth Circuit’s liberal leanings, Dodson disagrees. “As a rule, the Supreme Court usually takes cases not to affirm them, but to reverse them,” he says.
The Ninth Circuit is “populated by some of the very brightest legal minds in the country,” Dodson continues. “It doesn’t matter what their political stripe is or [where they’re from] ... the judges do a very good job applying the law and using reasoned decisions.”
Hoodline contacted representatives from the Ninth Circuit for commentary for this story, but received no response.
Want to see inside the building for yourself? Public tours of the James R. Browning Courthouse are offered on two Tuesdays each month, at 1pm.
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