A judicial panel is a set of judges who sit together to hear a
cause of action
A cause of action or right of action, in law
Law is a system
A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole.
A system, surrounded and influenced by i ...
, most frequently an appeal from a ruling of a
A trial court or court of first instance is a court
A court is any person or institution, often as a government institution, with the authority to Adjudication, adjudicate legal disputes between Party (law), parties and carry out the adminis ... judge
A judge is a person who wiktionary:preside, presides over court proceedings, either alone or as a part of a Judicial panel, panel of judges. A judge hears all the witnesses and any other Evidence (law), evidence presented by the barristers or s ...
. Panels are used in contrast to single-judge appeals, and hearings, which involves all of the judges of that court. Most national
A supreme court is the highest court
A court is any person or institution, often as a government institution, with the authority to Adjudication, adjudicate legal disputes between Party (law), parties and carry out the administration of just ...
s sit as panels.
The United States of America (U.S.A. or USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US) or America, is a country in . It consists of 50 , a , five major , 326 , and some . At , it is the world's . The United States shares significan ...
, most federal appellate cases are heard by three-judge panels. The governing statute, 28 U.S.C. § 46(c), provides:
Cases and controversies shall be heard and determined by a court or panel of not more than three judges (except that the
United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Federal Circuit; in case citation
Case citation is a system used by legal professionals to identify past court case decisions, either in series of books called reporters or law repo ... may sit in panels of more than three judges if its rules so provide), unless a hearing or rehearing before the court is ordered by a majority of the circuit judges of the circuit who are in regular active service.
This practice has been in place since as early as 1891.
[Marin K. Levy and Adam S. Chilton,]
Challenging the Randomness of Panel Assignment in the Federal Courts of Appeals
, 101 ''Cornell L. Rev.'' 1 (2015).
Most trials in the
United States District Court#REDIRECT United States district court
The United States district courts are the general trial court
A trial court or court of first instance is a court
A court is any person or institution, often as a government institution, with the aut ...
s are held before a single judge, but there are some circumstances where the trial itself is required to be held before a three judge panel. For example, 28 U. S. C. § 2284(a) states:
A district court of three judges shall be convened when otherwise required by Act of Congress, or when an action is filed challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts or the apportionment of any statewide legislative body.
Until 1976, three-judge panels heard lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of state and federal statutes, but this practice has largely ended, the major exceptions being apportionment and redistricting cases.
Typically, if the
A chief judge (also known as chief justice
The chief justice is the Chief judge, presiding member of a supreme court in any of many countries with a justice system based on English common law, such as the High Court of Australia, the Supreme Court ...
is a member of the panel, that person will chair the panel and call hearings to order; if the chief judge is not on the panel, this duty falls to the senior-most judge. Following oral arguments, the judges will meet briefly to confer and determine what the likely majority opinion in the case will be. If the judge who chairs the panel is in the majority at this time, that judge may assign the writing of the opinion for that case.
Selection of judicial panels is supposed to be random, or otherwise carried out in a way that avoids an appearance that the selection of the panel is intended to influence the outcome of a case. In the United States federal courts, the office of the courts states that "creation and scheduling of panels, and the assignment of specific cases to those panels, is handled by either the clerk of court's office or the circuit executive's office", with judges having "no role in panel assignments".
In some cases, however, challenges have been raised against the randomness or neutrality of the selection process. In 1963, for example, judge
Benjamin Franklin Cameron
Benjamin Franklin Cameron (December 14, 1890 – April 3, 1964) was an American jurist from the state of Mississippi. He served as a United States federal judge, United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circu ...
United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (in case citations, 5th Cir.) is a United States federal court, federal court with appellate jurisdiction over the United States district court, district courts in the following United State ...
"threw he court
into turmoil, charging Chief Judge Elbert P. Tuttle
with manipulating the composition of panels in civil rights and desegregation cases so as to influence their outcome".
[Jonathan L. Entin,]
'The Sign of The Four': Judicial Assignment and the Rule of Law
, ''Faculty Publications'' (1998), p. 377.
Although on the surface it appears that certain judges appeared on the panels an unusual number of times, a deeper examination noted that some of these appearances were dictated by the preference of certain judges (including Cameron) not to sit with others, thus reducing the number of possible combinations, and counting multiple hearings of the same case as separate panels.
A 2015 study suggested that "several of the circuit courts have panels that are nonrandom in ways that impact the ideological balance of panels".