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A judge who moves from place to place within his area of jurisdiction, "riding the circuit."

In the early days of the United States of America, the country had a large land area and a relatively low population density. This became even more so when the Western Territories were acquired. Among other things, this meant that most towns and counties didn't need a full-time judge.

Instead, outside the major cities, a judge would be assigned a territory, the "circuit". He would move from place to place within the territory, "riding the circuit", trying any new cases that had come up since the last time he'd held court in that jurisdiction. Often, the judge would be accompanied by several "circuit lawyers" who traveled with the judge to find clients in need of their services. Abraham Lincoln was a circuit lawyer for a while.

Even the justices of the US Supreme Court initially had to ride a circuit to hear appeals when the full court wasn't in session. This is why people left the bench before dying, which unfortunately has apparently become par for the course.

As population density increased, cities and counties eventually needed full-time judges, but a remnant of the tradition remains in the names of some courts such as the Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals, the largest and most famous of which is the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (which covers the Western United States). It has also come to be used metaphorically: the Court of Appeals for the DC circuit covers an area far too small to be a circuit in the traditional sense, and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit doesn't have a region attached to it at all: its jurisdiction is limited by the subject matter of the cases.

In fiction, the Circuit Judge generally moves plots by his absence. If the protagonist is Wrongly Accused, he will have to cool his heels in jail until the judge comes, allowing the real crook to finish his evil scheme or leave town. Time for a jail break!

Another common plot is for a particularly despised accused criminal to be threatened by an angry mob while in jail awaiting the arrival of the judge. The Sheriff must either engage in Shaming the Mob until the judge can arrive, or undertake a dangerous cross-country journey with the alleged crook to where the judge is sitting so he can get a fair trial and be hanged legal-like. Occasionally the Sheriff will refer to the Marshal (meaning a Federal Marshal[1]) instead of the Circuit Judge as being the one to take the prisoners off his hands. This is connected, because the Marshal is the one who would escort the prisoner to the Judge.

Once the Circuit Judge shows up, he's either the Hanging Judge or a Reasonable Authority Figure, depending on the needs of the plot.

In England and Wales, these were called "justices of assize", part of the Courts of Assize and finally abolished in 1972. They were also present in Medieval China, particularly during the Tang dynasty.


Comic Books

  • Gold Key published four issues of a Judge Colt comic book.


  • The Sons Of Katie Elder uses a combination of Wrongly Accused and Shaming the Mob, followed by moving the prisoners to where the circuit judge is.
  • Hang 'Em High is a version where the Circuit Judge is actually a major supporting character- and he is the original Hanging Judge (he was called that during his own lifetime) who is in charge of all cases in "Indian Territory" (Oklahoma). The main protagonist (Clint Eastwood) is the Marshal for the judge.
  • Luke Perry plays circuit judge John Goodnight in a couple of TV movies; Goodnight For Justice and Goodnight for Justice: The Measure of a Man.


  • There was a series of paperback westerns called The Judge about a gun-toting circuit judge.
  • In the Heralds of Valdemar series, this is one of the main peacetime duties of the Heralds; one entire book consists of the protagonists riding circuit.
  • Timothy Zahn's Dragonback series has a space version, where Judge-Paladins travel from planet to planet. In the fifth book, the main character is corralled into serving as a Judge-Paladin for an isolated group of aliens. He discovers shortly afterward that his parents were Judge-Paladins who were killed while visting the same group of aliens.
  • Ben Snow is hired to protect a Circuit Judge in Dagger Money.
  • The Adjudicator in the Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures novel Lucifer Rising.

Live Action TV

  • Robert Vaughn played one of these in The Magnificent Seven TV series. He was a Reasonable Authority Figure and paid the Seven to keep the peace in the town during his frequent absences.
  • SBS show The Circuit is about modern day example of this, following the court as they go on their circuit of remote Aboriginal communities in the West Australian outback.
  • The Adjudicator in the Doctor Who story Colony In Space is a Circuit Judge IN SPACE! Or he would be, if he wasn't the Master.


  1. These stories tend to be told within US territories rather than states; territories are under direct federal jurisdiction
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