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4th Circuit: Better than average at high court

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from federal courts in Maryland, has an enviable record before the U.S. Supreme Court when the justices choose to review its decisions.

Although the high court has upheld less than 29 percent of the cases it has reviewed during the past five terms, the 4th Circuit’s decisions have been affirmed more than 44 percent of the time, according to data from SCOTUSblog, a private blog about the Supreme Court.

The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th Circuit’s affirmance rate was surpassed by only two of the 13 U.S. circuit courts of appeal during that span: the Boston-based 1st Circuit, with 50 percent, and the Denver-based 10th Circuit, at 66.7 percent.

And this past term, the 4th Circuit batted .500 in the two cases the justices heard. The entire league of federal appellate courts (including the 4th Circuit) hit .270 at the Supreme Court, according to SCOTUSblog, which is published by Tom Goldstein of Goldstein & Russell P.C. in Washington and sponsored by the Bloomberg Law wire service.

Only two courts surpassed the 4th Circuit’s 50 percent rate this past term: the New York-based 2nd Circuit, with 60 percent of its decisions affirmed, and the Chicago-based 7th, with 75 percent, SCOTUSblog stated.

“The 4th Circuit is viewed as a relatively mainstream circuit,” said attorney Steven M. Klepper, of Kramon & Graham P.A. in Baltimore and a frequent advocate before the appellate court. “It’s neither markedly to the left nor markedly to the right of where the Supreme Court is right now.”

But law professor William Reynolds said he sees the 4th Circuit’s success not as an indication of being mainstream but as reflecting the Supreme Court majority.

“It does show that the conservative bent of the 4th Circuit reflects the conservative bent of the Supreme Court,” said Reynolds, the Jacob A. France Professor Emeritus of Judicial Process at the University Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

However, firm conclusions cannot be drawn because the 18 cases the Supreme Court has reviewed from the 4th Circuit over the past five years provide “too small a sample size,” he added.

The Supreme Court reviewed just two cases this past term from the 4th Circuit, which hears appeals from U.S. District Courts in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

In CTS Corp. v. Waldburger (No. 13-339), the justices on June 9 overturned the 4th Circuit in ruling that a group of North Carolina homeowners cannot sue a company that contaminated their drinking water decades ago because a state deadline has lapsed.

A week later, in Abramski v. United States (No. 12-1493), the Supreme Court affirmed the 4th Circuit in holding the federal government can strictly enforce laws that ban a “straw” purchaser from buying a gun for someone else. The justices ruled 5-4 on June 16 that the law applied to a Virginia man who bought a gun with the intention of transferring it to his uncle in Pennsylvania — even though the uncle is not prohibited from owning firearms.

Lowest success rates

In contrast to the 4th Circuit’s success, these circuits had the lowest five-year affirmance rates, according to data from SCOTUSblog:

  • 6th Circuit (based in Cincinnati): 9.7 percent
  • 11th Circuit (Atlanta): 19.2 percent
  • 8th Circuit (St. Louis): 21.8 percent
  • 9th Circuit (San Francisco): 23.1 percent.

The 9th Circuit also fared poorly in the term just ended, with an affirmance rate of just 8 percent, according to SCOTUSblog.

The 8th Circuit and the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit brought up the rear. Each had two decisions and no affirmances, for a 0-0 tie.

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