The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit hears primarily appeals as of right from the United States District Courts in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The Fourth Circuit consists of up to fifteen active Judges and any number of “Senior” Judges (currently only one of whom hears cases). All Judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. There have been vacant seats on the Fourth Circuit for many years. In 2010, however, two of the vacant seats were filled by Judges from North Carolina, bringing North Carolina’s complement of Judges to three (Judges Duncan, Wynn, and Diaz).
The Fourth Circuit sits in panels of three Judges that are constituted randomly by computer. Because of continuing vacancies, District Court Judges from within the Circuit are often asked to sit for a week of oral arguments to help manage the docket. From time to time, Circuit Judges from other Circuits, or even retired United States Supreme Court Justices will sit on Fourth Circuit panels. When oral argument is granted, the panel will typically hear arguments at the Fourth Circuit courthouse in Richmond, Virginia, but may hear cases at law schools or other venues within the Circuit from time to time.
Nevertheless, most appeals in the Fourth Circuit are decided on the briefing alone without oral argument.
The Fourth Circuit is widely thought to be the most efficient and collegial Circuit Court in the country. Opinions are typically issued within 90 days of oral argument, for example. Opinions are issued as decided, and not in scheduled batches like in the North Carolina Appellate courts. In addition, the Judges continue a longstanding tradition of descending from the bench to greet counsel following oral arguments.
A panel of the Fourth Circuit typically has the last say on an appeal. In rare instances, perhaps only once or twice per year, the Court will sit en banc to consider an appeal (usually after the panel has already decided the case). Finally, parties to the appeal may petition the United States Supreme Court for further review, though it is rarely granted.