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February 13, 2024

The Importance and Impact of U.S. Appellate Courts of Special Jurisdiction

By: Mark Magyar

The majority of practitioners seldom have cause to appear in a court of special jurisdiction, and many of us are not aware that some of these courts even exist. But the importance of these courts and the impact their decisions have on millions of people cannot be understated. That is why the AJEI Summit insightfully included a session entitled, “The Importance and Impact of U.S. Appellate Courts of Special Jurisdiction.”

The star-studded composition of the panel included Hon. Jennifer Choe-Groves of the United States Court of International Trade, Hon. John E. Sparks of the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and Hon. Scott L. Laurer of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and was moderated by Deanne E. Maynard of Morrison & Foerster LLP, who also contributed her experience at the Federal Circuit, another court of special jurisdiction.

First, the United States Court of International Trade. It became an Article III court in the 1950s after existing for more than fifty years. Matters before the Court involve trade issues from all over the world. Federal agencies that have cases in this court include the Department of Commerce, US Customs, the Department of Labor, the Department of the Treasury, the International Trade Administration, and others. The Department of Justice argues all agency cases there, along with private parties. It is not uncommon to have hundreds of parties to a case, similar in size to Multi-District Litigation or class action lawsuits, and cases can take a very long time to resolve. They are often highly complex and involve huge dollar amounts. This court is primarily an appellate court but can operate like a trial court and conduct jury or bench trials. It has national jurisdiction, can sit anywhere in the country, and can sit outside the country (usually at a US embassy).

Next, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. It is a worldwide Article I court that covers the appeals of all active-duty service members after conviction at a court martial, which is comparable to a criminal trial. This court is limited to criminal matters. This is a court of discretionary review in which the appellant must make a petition for review, and the standard of review is whether the military court gave full and fair consideration to the issues raised by petitioner, which is designed to be highly deferential. This is the only federal appellate court where every appellant has free representation before the court by judge advocates in their division. The issues raised in this court often have the distinct possibility of going to other courts of special jurisdiction once the criminal aspect is resolved. For instance, a petitioner’s case may end up in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims if there is some sort of pay dispute as a result of the decision. Or sometimes the appellant may bring a claim in veterans court after being dishonorably discharged or bad-conduct discharged.

Which brings us to our next court of special jurisdiction, the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, an Article I court. Judge Laurer himself did not realize this court existed until he was asked to fill a vacancy on it. The court has exclusive jurisdiction over final decisions of the Board of Veterans Appeals (the “Board”). The Board looks at all Veterans Affairs benefits – disability, survivor, etc., and only people harmed by a Board decision can appeal to this court; there are no appeals by an agency or the Board. This court has the first independent judicial review of final actions of the VA. It is an immensely busy court. There are 120 Administrative Law Judges and more than 100,000 decisions issued per year, which is expected to increase based upon new legislation. Congress authorized single judge decisions, which is critical to the mission and ability to dispose of all of the cases that come before it. About 2,000 decisions of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims are issued after briefing per year. The court has a special relationship with The Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program (TVC). Part of the court’s annual budget is given to TVC and, in return, TVC trains attorneys to represent veterans or family members who would otherwise be proceeding pro se. When the relationship with TVC began, 80% of veterans proceed pro se, but now that figure is down to 18%. Most cases are disability cases, which are complex, and it makes a big impact for the veteran to have representation. Also, several laws schools have clinics in which the students can represent veterans at this court, as well as individual law students who are supervised by lawyers, or non-attorney advocates who are supervised by or affiliated with certain organizations. The Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction to hear appeals from this court.

And last but certainly not least is the aforementioned Federal Circuit. It is an Article III court in Washington, D.C. It has nationwide jurisdiction and covers an array of subject matter such as patents, trademarks, commerce, veterans’ claims, etc. It hears oral argument in almost every lawyered case. Similar to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, there are abundant pro bono opportunities in the Federal Circuit, particularly in veterans cases.

Thus, whether it is protecting the rights of our service men and women, carefully processing and reviewing the scores of veterans’ claims, or managing cases having billions of dollars at stake and involving agencies and parties from all over the world, the importance and impact of these courts of special jurisdiction cannot be denied. AJEI helped to shine a light on these critically important courts for those of us civil and criminal practitioners who generally see only the workings of mainstream Article III federal district courts and circuit courts of appeals.

Mark Magyar

Dykema Gossett, PLLC

Mark Magyar is a member in the Lansing, Michigan office of Dykema Gossett, PLLC and resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He focuses his practice on business litigation and appeals. He is a council member for the Michigan State Bar’s Appellate Practice Section and a member of the Executive Board of the ABA’s Council of Appellate Lawyers (CAL).

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