The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. In theory, it acts as one unifying body of law for each and every corner of that land. But in practice, the Constitution can mean different things in different places. That’s because federal law divides the United States into 12 geographic districts, each with its own separate federal court of appeals, whose constitutional interpretations apply only within its own circuit.
And now, Arizona wants to switch circuits. Governor Doug Ducey, Senator Jeff Flake, and Representative Matt Salmon announced a joint effort last week to sever their state from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing its heavy workload, high rate of reversal, and slow resolution of cases.
Which states are placed in which federal appellate circuits might seem a little wonky, but the practical implications are huge. Except for the few petitions granted by the Supreme Court each year, the circuit courts of appeal are the final arbiter of almost all federal cases.
And Arizona’s leaders have a point. If you designed the American federal judiciary from scratch today, the Ninth Circuit probably wouldn’t exist. Of the 13 circuit courts of appeal, it’s by far the largest, spanning the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, as well as the Pacific territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. When Congress created the court in 1891, its vast territory was sparsely inhabited, holding less than 4 percent of the U.S. population. Now, after 125 years of westward migration, more than 20 percent of all Americans live within its jurisdiction.