Circuit (political division)

From Academic Kids


Circuits in the common law

In law, a circuit is an appellate judicial district commonly seen in the court systems of many nations. The term (as traditionally used among English-speaking lawyers) comes from an era in which judges would ride around the countryside each year on preset paths to hear cases.


For much of the history of Western civilization, most people were illiterate and competent lawyers and judges were always in short supply relative to the demands for their services.

As England emerged from the Dark Ages, the king gradually hit upon the solution of making the judges ride around the countryside or "ride circuit" each year to hear appeals, rather than forcing everyone to bring their appeals to London. For more information, see the article on assizes.

United States

Since most of the original 13 colonies were largely settled by the English, it was natural that they would bring their idea of judicial circuits with them.

Under the original Judiciary Act of 1790 and subsequent acts, the U.S. Supreme Court justices themselves had the responsibility of "riding circuit" and personally hearing intermediate appeals (in addition to their caseload back in Washington). This onerous duty was not abolished by Congress until the late 19th century.

Today, there is a federal Court of Appeals that sits permanently in each appellate circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court justices still retain vestiges of their old powers from the days of riding circuit; each justice is designated to hear certain interlocutory appeals from specific circuits and can unilaterally decide them or refer them to the entire Court. Also, the Court's customary summer recess originated as the time during which the justices would leave Washington and ride circuit (since dirt roads were more passable in the summer).

Circuits in East Asia

Circuit (道 ; Chinese: do; Japanese: ) was a historical political division of China, and is still a Japanese one. In Korea, the same word 道 (도; do) is translated as "Province."

There is another Chinese political division, the l (路), which is translated as "circuits" as well, because the dao and lu never coexisted. Both lu and dao literally mean "road/path".


Circuits originated in China in 627, when Emperor Taizong subdivided China into ten circuits. These were originally meant to be purely geographic and not administrative. Emperor Xuanzong further added 5. Slowly the circuits strengthened their own power, until they became powerful regional forces that tore the country apart during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. During the Jinn and Song, circuits were renamed lu. Dao were revived during the Yuan Dynasty.

At first, circuits were the highest of the three-tier administrative system of China; the next two were prefectures or zhou (州) and counties (縣, also translated as "districts"). They are simultaneously inspection areas (監察區 jian1 cha2 qu1). Circuits were demoted to the second-level after the Yuan Dynasty established provinces at the very top, and remained there for the next several centuries.

Circuits still existed as high-level, though not top-level, divisions of the Republic of China, such as Qiongya Circuit (now Hainan Province). In 1928, all circuits were replaced with committees or just completely abandoned.


During the pre-modern era, Japan was divided into seven routes encompassing the islands of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu. The seven defunct routes spread all over the three islands:

  • Tōkaidō (東海道) "East Sea Route": 15 provinces (kuni)
  • Nankaidō (南海道) "South Sea Route": 6 provinces
  • Saikaidō (西海道) "West Sea Route": 8 provinces
  • Hokurikudō (北陸道) "North Mainland Route": 7 provinces
  • San'indō (山陰道) "Mountain-north Route": 8 provinces
  • San'yōdō (山陽道) "Mountain-south Route": 8 provinces
  • Tōsandō (東山道) "East Mountain Route": 13 provinces

(For the mountain south-north reference with in and yo, see Yin Yang.)

In the mid-1800's, the northern island of Ezo was settled, and renamed Hokkaido ("North Sea Route"). However, Hokkaido was never a "route" in the classical sense. It is essentially a prefecture with a different name from the other prefectures.

See also: Prefectures of Japan, Old provinces of Japan


Since the late 10th century, the Do ("Province") has been the primary administrative division in Korea. See Provinces of Korea for details.

zh-cn:道 (行政区)


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