How many judges hear an appeal in federal court?
UPDATED: February 20, 2013
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Three judges normally are assigned to decide each federal appeal, except under certain circumstances. If two of the three judges agree on the decision on the appeal, that becomes the decision of the federal appeals court. Very rarely, the federal appeals court will grant a motion for rehearing the appeal (by the same three judges) or a rehearing "en banc", by all or most of the active judges on that particular Circuit Court of Appeals.
Under federal law, an appeal can never be decided by only one judge. Doing so would defeat the purpose of the appeal court’s ability to review cases. By requiring multiple judges to hear a case, it ensures a better mix of judges and ideally an efficient means of eliminating any prejudices.
The federal appeals court is a busy place. In fact, there are actually 13 United States Appeals courts all of whom are constantly reviewing cases from the trial court. As is stated by federal law, every aggrieved party has an appeal by right, so the appeals court remains a very busy place. With so many cases to review and hear, it is no surprise that most cases are reviewed or “heard” by three appeal judges in federal appeals court.
There are times when more than just three judges hear a case. En banc is a French term that means, on the bench. It is used to describe cases where the entire group of federal judges for that district hear the case, instead of simply a panel. In cases that involve complex matters of law or have serious social implications, the court will order an en banc rehearing. In addition, an en banc rehearing can be granted if the panel’s decision was somehow incorrect. En banc reviews may be made at the request of either the parties or the panel, but are not guaranteed.