About the US District Courts & the US Courts of Appeals.
“The United States district courts are the trial courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution, the district courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases, including both civil and criminal matters. . . .”
“There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Three territories of the United States -- the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands -- have district courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy cases. . . . Bankruptcy courts are separate units of the district courts. . . .”
“The 94 U.S. judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. A court of appeals hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies.”
“In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.”
A precedent is “an example or rule to authorize or justify a subsequent act of the same or an analogous kind.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed. 2001). Since they are trial courts, US District Courts do not set precedents. However, very often the US District Court’s opinion will cite a precedent from its Circuit Court of Appeals or from the US Supreme Court.
For example the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts is within the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and you may see citation of First Circuit decisions in a District of Massachusetts District Court case. However, a District Court will usually not cite a decision from a different Circuit Court of Appeals; sometimes it will do so when its own circuit has not ruled on the issue.
About Social Security & Precedents.
Social Security takes the position that it is not bound by precedents (unless it comes from the US Supreme Court)! Social Security will obey US District Court or Circuit Court of Appeals instructions as they relate to one specific case. But officially Social Security will not follow any decided case unless it “acquiesces” in the outcome.
Social Security describes its “nationwide policy” as supporting “consistent adjudication.”
In Social Security Ruling 96-1p, the Social Security Administration sets outs its rationale:
“To clarify longstanding policy that, unless and until a Social Security Acquiescence Ruling (AR) is issued determining that a final circuit court holding conflicts with the Agency’s interpretation of the Social Security Act or regulations and explaining how SSA will apply such a holding, SSA decisionmakers continue to be bound by SSA’s nationwide policy, rather than the court’s holding, in adjudicating other claims within that circuit court’s jurisdiction. This Ruling does not in any way modify SSA’s acquiescence policy to which the Agency continues to remain firmly committed, but instead serves to emphasize consistent adjudication in the programs SSA administers. This Ruling is also issued to clarify longstanding Agency policy that, despite a district court decision which may conflict with SSA’s interpretation of the Social Security Act or regulations, SSA adjudicators will continue to apply SSA’s nationwide policy when adjudicating other claims within that district court’s jurisdiction unless the court directs otherwise.”
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