What is the hierarchy of binding precedents within the federal court system?

  1. US Supreme Court decisions are binding on all federal courts, but are most likely to be applicable to cases heard in US District Courts or appealed to US Court of Appeals Circuit Courts.

    The Supreme Court's decisions are also binding on State courts if they involve constitutional amendments that have been incorporated to the states.

  • US Court of Appeals Circuit Court decisions are binding on all US District Courts within that Circuit, but only carry persuasive precedential weight in other Circuits. The decisions are not binding on other Circuits or on any state courts.
    • US District Court decisions are not binding on other courts, but may be cited as persuasive precedents by other courts, regardless of which Circuit the court belongs to.

When US Court of Appeals Circuit Courts issue conflicting decisions on substantially similar matters (called a Circuit Split), they may induce the US Supreme Court to grant certiorari for a case that can be used to resolve or clarify the constitutional issue. The Supreme Court decision will then create a binding precedent used in deciding similar future cases.

When Circuit Splits are unresolved, the individual decisions -- although conflicting -- remain binding within each Circuit, but not outside the Circuit. This raises the possibility that one or more of the other ten regional Circuits* will further complicate matters by creating a third split, resulting in inconsistent constitutional interpretations and application of law. For this reason, reviewing cases that address Circuit Splits are high on the US Supreme Court's list of priorities.

* The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has special subject matter jurisdiction and is less likely to be affected by decisions made in the regional Circuits.