D.C. Circuit Review – Reviewed: District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals

by Aaron Nielson — Friday, Sept. 22, 2017@Aaron_L_Nielson

I was on Twitter yesterday* and ran across a familiar clarification in a tweet about the District of Columbia Court of Appeals:

Which was followed by this tweet:

Which, in turn, was followed by this tweet:

To those who affiliate with #AppellateTwitter, the distinction between the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals is obvious. Unfortunately, many people make mistakes — which is understandable. The fact that people sometimes call the D.C. Circuit the “District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals” (a term which has been used 369 times in the last three years per Westlaw’s database of secondary sources) doesn’t help.

This week, the D.C. Circuit issued no opinions. So while we have this bit of time, perhaps it is worth thinking about whether the confusion can be eliminated. Here’s an idea: Why not change the name of one of the courts?

The best argument in favor of changing the name of the D.C. Circuit is that it is doubly confusing. Not only does it sound too much like the D.C. Court of Appeals, but a “D.C. Circuit” has a meaning entirely independent of the law (well, not Ohm’s law, but that’s my point). In particular, this picture relates to a “DC Circuit”:

Poynting vectors of DC circuit

That’s confusing!

The problem is that there is not a good replacement for the D.C. Circuit. All of the other federal appellate courts have the word “circuit” in them. It would be strange to change the D.C. Circuit’s name without changing the names of the other circuits and that is too heavy a lift. (To be sure, we could change the name of Federal Circuit because it creates confusion of its own–I propose the U.S. Court of Appeals of Miscellaneous Cases Worth Billions of Dollars, Often Involving Circuits–but that is a conversation for another day.)

Can we change the name of the D.C. Court of Appeals? Well, the D.C. Court of Appeals is akin to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. So we could call it the D.C. Supreme Court. But there is an obvious problem with that name: The U.S. Supreme Court also sits in the District of Columbia. We could call it the High Court of the District of Columbia but too would create confusion because, again, the U.S. Supreme Court is often called the High Court.

Here is a thought: Why don’t we call the D.C. Court of Appeals the D.C. Court of Errors? That would avoid the confusion. (Well, unless people continue to confuse it with the U.S. Supreme Court ….) The downside, of course, is that it would open the court up to lots of easy jokes–“Ha ha, that’s the court that makes errors”–and no one wants that.

So I’m stumped. If you have a better name for the D.C. Court of Appeals, send it my way. You can reach me @Aaron_L_Nielson!

* I may I have linked to this before but it merits another link. I’m sympathetic to Mr. O’Brien’s view. That said, Twitter helps me keep track of the news.


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About Aaron Nielson

Professor Nielson is an associate professor at Brigham Young University Law School, where he teaches and writes in the areas of administrative law, civil procedure, federal courts, and antitrust. He currently serves as a public member of the Administrative Conference of the United States, a federal agency that studies the administrative process and makes recommendations on ways to improve it. He also co-chairs the Rulemaking Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section of Administrative Law & Regulatory Practice. Previously he chaired the Section's Antitrust & Trade Regulation Committee. Before joining the academy, Professor Nielson was a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP (where he remains of counsel). He also has served as a law clerk to Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Judge Jerry E. Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_L_Nielson.

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