Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

An Appeal to Common Sense: Why "Unappealable" District Court Decisions Should Be Subject to Appellate Review

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

An Appeal to Common Sense: Why "Unappealable" District Court Decisions Should Be Subject to Appellate Review

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT-28 U.S.C. § 1291 vests jurisdiction in the United States Circuit Courts of Appeal to hear "appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States." Various circuit courts have, however, determined that they may only hear appeals of final "judicial" decisions, and that they do not have jurisdiction to hear appeals from final decisions of United States district courts if those decisions are "administrative." Circuit courts have been loath to explicitly define the dividing line between the two classes of case, and have frequently invoked the potential availability of mandamus review as a means of placating litigants who are told they cannot receive direct review of their purportedly administrative case. Yet because the distinction is ill defined, and because alternative avenues of review are in reality unavailable, "administrative" has proven broad and unforgiving. This Note critiques the tenuous distinction between administrative and judicial, examining fee reimbursement decisions under the Criminal Justice Act to pinpoint where the line is, where it should be, and how courts should explain its location. If there is to be a line separating administrative from judicial, it should be sharply drawn with an eye to the connectedness of the litigants and the dispute to the inner workings of the court. If administrative decisions remain unreviewable, judicial consistency and legitimacy demand that "administrative" be a narrow classification.

INTRODUCTION

The Constitution does not require appellate review of federal district court decisions in United States Courts of Appeals.1 In fact, the Constitution does not provide for either courts of appeals or federal district courts, and both are vulnerable to congressional dissolution at any time.2 Yet intermediate review in federal appellate courts has been a staple of the federal judiciary since Congress created the federal district courts in 1789; the latter have never existed without the former.3 Indeed, intermediate review has long been considered a central element of a judicial system devoted to this country's "continuing constitutional revolution."4

Congress vested circuit courts with the power of intermediate review to achieve some degree of consistency, predictability, and fairness in the federal judicial system.5 In the early republic, judicial decisions emanating from federal district courts were subject to appellate oversight in circuit courts. These courts were staffed by district judges and Supreme Court Justices riding circuit, both to provide litigants with secondary review and to expose Supreme Court Justices to the idiosyncrasies of the divergent communities scattered throughout the nation.6 The advent of this type of system was a clear endorsement of the notion that the legitimacy of any judicial system depends heavily on the availability of supervisory appellate review, and it made clear that the federal judiciary of the United States would be no exception.7

This belief that judicial decisionmaking deserves supervisory oversight continues to anchor the legitimacy of the American court system today. Judicial "decisions," however, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, not all of which warrant appellate oversight. Every day, federal judges make decisions that implicate few, if any, substantive rights of participants in the judicial process. For example, judges make decisions about the hiring of administrative staff, whether to purchase new office supplies, and what type of office decor they would like to adorn their chambers.8 Uncontroversially, these "administrative" decisions are not appealable, and no commentator has ever asserted that they should be. To subject the everyday, nonadjudicatory decisions of district court judges to appellate review would be to expand the already overwhelmed dockets of appellate courts9 and would make judicial administration at the district court level unworkable. Even more importantly, no party would have standing to appeal such decisions in the first place. …

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