Some US laws (e.g. dealing with air pollution or national security) specify the D.C. Circuit as the place where the law or application thereof can be challenged, in first instance. Is there a realpolitik reason for this? E.g., does the DC Circuit favor the government (or the government's interpretation) more often than other Circuits?

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    In law, the specification is normally "United States District Court for the District of Columbia" rather than "United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit". The two are sometimes confused since the D.C. Circuit has only one district court.
    – Rick Smith
    Commented May 2 at 14:49
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    One example is 28 U.S. Code § 1365 "(a)The United States District Court for the District of Columbia shall have original jurisdiction, ..."
    – Rick Smith
    Commented May 2 at 15:03

5 Answers 5


John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, gave an interesting lecture on the history of the DC Circuit in 2005. It doesn't completely answer your question but it's an interesting read and explains a lot. The closing paragraphs:

The growth of the administrative state in the 1960s and 1970s led to the rise of agency appeals that more than made up for the loss of this local jurisdiction by the D.C. Circuit. The first decision to give administrative jurisdiction to the D.C. Circuit in 1870, as well as a handful of similar decisions in the early twentieth century, became prototypes for a succession of legislative grants of authority to review decisions of the FCC, the Federal Power Agency (later FERC), the EPA, the NLRB, the FTC, and the FAA. Whatever combination of letters you can put together, it is likely that jurisdiction to review that agency’s decision is vested in the D.C. Circuit. Even when the jurisdiction is concurrent, as it often is — decisions of the NLRB, for example, can be reviewed in the D.C. Circuit, in the circuit where the petitioner resides, or in the circuit where the events giving rise to the matter took place — lawyers frequently prefer to litigate in the D.C. Circuit because there is a far more extensive body of administrative law developed there than in other circuits.

The 1970 reform legislation setting up the local D.C. courts resolved the duality in the D.C. Circuit that had been its defining characteristic since 1801. Its local jurisdiction had allowed the court to survive the Jeffersonian purge in 1802, and had given rise to its first assertion of authority to review decisions of the national government in the Kendall case in 1837. That authority, in turn, made it easy for Congress to think of the D.C. Circuit as the natural repository for jurisdiction to review agency decisions, and those cumulative decisions helped persuade the Supreme Court that the D.C. Circuit’s status was that of a national court and not simply a local court. By the time it lost local jurisdiction in 1970, the D.C. Circuit’s unique character, as a court with special responsibility to review legal challenges to the conduct of the national government, had been firmly established.

  • Useful info, but see my comments about 1391 under another answer here. Basically, that allows plaintiffs to choose whether to sue the government (agencies) in DC or where they (the plaintiffs) reside (unless there's real property involved, in which case they can choose between DC or where the property is.) Laws like the Clean Air Act or the recent TikTok sell-or-ban however remove that choice and force the plaintiff to sue in DC. Commented May 2 at 16:43

The default rule, which applies in the case of tax court, decisions of the National Labor Relations Board, Occupational Safety and Health Administration decisions, and many other agencies is that you have a decision made by a centralized administrative law body, and then appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Circuit in which the person dealing with the IRS or agency resides.

The default rule often places the agency in the position of having conflicting legal rules when applying the same laws on a national basis, and can lead to conflicting interpretations of federal laws generally.

In contrast, if appeals are limited to the D.C. Circuit (not to be confused with the Federal Circuit, which handles mostly intellectual property and international trade law appeals regardless of where they are originally filed) then the possibility of circuit splits on legal issues is eliminated.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, from which appeals go to the D.C. Circuit, is also frequently assigned jurisdiction over matters related to Congress, over the the internal operations of the federal government, and over certain matters that happen abroad (e.g. matters related to the Guantanamo Bay U.S. military base). This creates clarity over the proper venue for these kinds of lawsuits and also insures that a single body of caselaw from judges that regularly encounter these issues develops.

It is true that U.S. District Court judges in jurisdictions in a U.S. state are made in consultation with the U.S. Senators from that state, and that judges in other circuits are chosen in consultation with the U.S. Senators from that circuit, but the lack of any special input from a particular geographic area's U.S. Senators is really a relatively minor motivation behind assigning venue for certain kinds of cases to the District of Columbia.

In a small minority of cases, where the court that would otherwise handle a case is known (e.g. related to a particular construction project), a D.C. venue might be chosen to divest that court whose judge's the backers of the legislation don't trust, from authority over that particular issue. But this is the rare exception, rather than the rule. And, then it is done not so much because the D.C. Circuit is so great, as it is because the legislators don't want the usual choice of court to have jurisdiction over the case.

I would disagree with the answer from Machavity that the fact that "The DC Circuit is the smallest, and thus least busy, of all the circuits" is a meaningful factor. It is the geographically smallest of the U.S. Courts of Appeal, but it doesn't follow that it is the least busy, which really depends upon the number of cases per judge, and not the absolute number of case in a circuit.

This said, there is a certain randomness in whether cases are assigned to the United States District Court of the District of Columbia, or to any U.S. District Court under the default rule. Congress is rather thoughtless in making this decision with respect to which courts handle particular kinds of lawsuit. Often, this comes down to which particular people are involved in drafting a statute, rather than any overarching policy or political motivation.

Some US laws (e.g. dealing with air pollution or national security) specify the D.C. Circuit as the place where the law or application thereof can be challenged, in first instance. Is there a realpolitik reason for this? E.g., does the DC Circuit favor the government (or the government's interpretation) more often than other Circuits?

This kind of thinking really gets the chain of cause and effect backwards.

Judges nominated for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and for the D.C. Circuit, are chosen by Presidents with a special focus on their competence and policy leanings on public law issues (i.e. on legal issues involving government agencies as opposed to lawsuit between private parties which are called "private law" issues), because a disproportionate share of federal court litigation in D.C. involves public law as opposed to private law issues.

Public law issues are often more politically important than private law issues. And, the most renowned federal judges on private law issues tend to be federal appellate court judges on circuits other than the D.C. Circuit. Judges who are renowned for their private law rulings are rarely promoted to the U.S. Supreme Court. None of the ten or twenty most famous and respected federal appellate court judges on private law issues outside the D.C. Circuit have been U.S. Supreme Court nominees in recent history, even though those would have been obvious choices for nominees who could receive bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate.

The D.C. Circuit is also, by tradition, something of a testing ground to which Presidents appoint judges whom they see as potential U.S. Supreme Court nominees down the road. While the rights and compensation of D.C. Circuit judges are the same as any other circuit judge, the post is slightly more prestigious.


The Federal Appeals Court system became known as "circuits" because you had appellate judges who typically traveled to where the case was to adjudicate it. Thus appellate courts have specific geographic areas they cover.

The DC Circuit is the smallest, and thus least busy, of all the circuits. The reason for this is the Federal Court in Washington DC is the only court it hears appeals for. Unless you're suing the city of Washington D.C., the only other thing it can hear is cases for the Federal Government (there are some other case types, but they are edge cases). Thus, it makes sense that laws would specify that only this court can hear such cases.

In most cases this actually makes it easier to sue the Federal government. There's very little business before this court (relatively speaking). Justia lists about 76,000 cases currently. For comparison, the Ninth Circuit has about 1.1 million cases listed.

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    The appellate judges were the justices of the supreme court. "the only other thing it can hear is cases for the Federal Government": it will also hear cases under federal jurisdiction where no government is a party.
    – phoog
    Commented May 2 at 23:49

I'm not 100% how correct this is, but the limiting of [by 'special' law] of venue (because a plaintiff would otherwise be able to [choose to] sue the government in the plaintiff's place of residence [if no real property is involved] or where the property is) is allegedly because the DC circuit indulges fewer maverik anti-government decisions, at least according to one commentator:

The DC Circuit Court has exclusive jurisdiction over many aspects of federal administrative law, such as immigration law and some tax law. Dealing with challenges to the federal government is par for the course in this circuit. “This is a court that’s going to take the issue seriously and apply Supreme Court precedent in a serious way,” said Matt Schettenhelm, senior litigation analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence covering tech and telecom. “You won’t have the situation where maybe a judge could get this case and try to make a name for himself by writing a bold First Amendment decision, for example, that pushes the limits.”

OTOH it's not quite the case the DC circuit always sides with agencies, see recent example where EPA lost [v. California].


The question gives no evidence for thinking that there should be such a reason, and unless there is some statement out there stating that there is, we can't read minds.

The circuit was established in 1893. It has jurisdiction over federal agencies because these are headquartered in DC. So a natural counter-question would be where else should such cases be heard?

A unique feature of the court politically is that there are no state senators involved in the appointment of judges. One might therefore speculate that the court has closer ties to the executive. But as far as I can tell that would be pure speculation, and so far I've not even seen anyone allege that this produces any specific bias, never mind to go a step further and suggest that this is why the DC court is assigned to hear cases about the agencies based in its district.

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    Not all federal agencies are headquartered in Washington DC
    – Joe W
    Commented May 2 at 14:35
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    @JoeW: actually "for purposes of venue under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(e)(1), federal agencies "reside in Washington, D.C.," see Williams v. United States, No. C-01-0024 EDL, 2001 WL 1352885, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 23, 2001)" So all federal agencies count as residing in DC when sued, even if they physically reside somewhere else. casetext.com/case/fulkerson-v-us-dept-of-justice Commented May 2 at 16:21
  • However, there's an additional provision that when an agency is sued but "no real property is involved in the action" then it's the plaintiff's address that counts for venue, unless there's a special provision [in some other law] that says otherwise (same source; actual law 28 U.S.C. § 1391(e)(1) given here law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/28/1391). So when challenging [clean air] regulations etc., a plaintiff would normally be able to sue in their own district (under § 1391), but that's then again overridden in special laws like the Clean Air Act etc. Commented May 2 at 16:23
  • (Somewhat less relevant here, but if there is real property involved in the action, then the location of that property determines the venue under 1391.) Actually, I slightly misread 1391. It says "in any judicial district in which ...", so a plaintiff would always be able to sue the government in DC, but they can choose to do so elsewhere (i.e. where they reside if action doesn't involve property or where the property is otherwise.) Commented May 2 at 16:35
  • There is a difference between being headquartered in Washington DC according to law for the purpose of legal matters and where they are actually physically headquartered. I would suggest updating your answer to reflect that difference.
    – Joe W
    Commented May 2 at 17:27

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