The first thing that someone says when they receive an unfavorable court ruling is often, "I will appeal!" While appealing a court decision might be the right thing to do, sometimes it's not. To decide whether to make an appeal, you need to know exactly how the appeals process works.
What is an Appeal?
An appeal is a request from a party in a lower court proceeding to a higher (appellate) court asking for a review and modification or reversal of the lower court's decision. If a defendant in a criminal case is found guilty of a charge or charges, the defendant has the right to appeal that conviction or the punishment or sentencing. It's common for convicted defendants to appeal their convictions in a new trial before a court of appeals.
When Can You Appeal?
The defendant in a criminal trial may appeal after they are convicted at trial. In each jurisdiction, there is a limited amount of time to file an appeal, and it's important to check with your attorney regarding the timeframe unique to where your case is being heard.
It's very common for convicted defendants to appeal their convictions and/or sentencing before an appeals court. Usually, only the defendant in a criminal trial may appeal the final judgment of the court after a trial, as the prosecution is not allowed to appeal a defendant's acquittal (a finding of "not guilty"). In addition, after an acquittal, the prosecutor may not put the same defendant on trial for the same charge with the same evidence. This kind of retrial is known as "double jeopardy." Double jeopardy is expressly prohibited under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
However, prior to or during a criminal trial, a prosecutor may be able to appeal certain rulings, such as when a judge has ordered that some evidence be "suppressed." Appeals that take place in the midst of a trial are called interlocutory appeals. In most cases, appeals can be very complicated; the appellate court tends to enforce technical rules for proceeding with an appeal.
How Does the Appellate Court Work?
The procedures of appellate courts consist of the rules and practices by which appellate courts review trial court judgments. Federal appellate courts follow the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. State appellate courts follow their own state rules of appellate procedure. In both state and federal jurisdictions, appeals are commonly limited to "final judgments." There are exceptions to the "final judgment rule," including instances of plain or fundamental error by the trial court, questions of subject-matter jurisdiction of the trial court, or constitutional questions.
The issues under review in appellate courts center on written briefs prepared by the parties. In these complex documents, the parties list the questions that they would like for the court of appeals to review. These briefs also enumerate the legal authorities and arguments in support of each party's position. Most appellate courts do not hear oral arguments unless there's a specific request by the parties.
Few jurisdictions allow for oral argument by default. Where it is allowed, oral argument is intended to clarify legal issues presented in the briefs, and lawyers are constrained to keep their oral presentations strictly to the issues on appeal. Ordinarily, oral arguments are subjected to a strictly enforced time limit. This time limit can be extended only upon the discretion of the court.
In the United States court system, rules regarding procedure can be very complicated. It's important to consult with an attorney if you have questions regarding the specifics of any procedural issues in an appeal, which may be unique to any given jurisdiction.
Basic Parts of Filing an Appeal
The first step you'll take in filing your appeal is to file a notice of appeal. The deadlines for filing a timely notice of appeal may vary based on the grounds on which you're appealing and where you are located. It's important to check with an attorney regarding the deadlines that may be unique to your appeal. Just as you face certain deadlines, the respondent or party against whom you are filing the appeal also faces such deadlines in their own timely response to your challenging a lower court's decision.
With a notice of appeal, you notify the lower appeals court and the parties to the appeal that you are challenging the decision of a lower court—or a court order. Your notice of appeal typically must attach that court order. Again, the appellate process can be very complicated, and it is important to consult with an attorney regarding the deadlines and procedures of any appellate process. They can vary significantly from one place to the next, and by other aspects of your appeal.
Another important step in any appellate process is drafting and filing the appellate briefs. These briefs include all arguments the parties to the appeal will address during the higher court's review of your case. Typically, parties are not allowed to address new arguments, and they must only revisit arguments that were already considered during earlier stages of your case. As a general rule, no new evidence may be introduced on appeal.
If You Lose Your Appeal, Are You Done?
In criminal cases, a federal court may review a conviction after all of the usual appeals have been exhausted. A convicted defendant may request one of these reviews in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus—Latin for "you have the body." Only a very small percentage of these petitions are granted. In death penalty cases, these proceedings have become highly controversial. Since a judicial or prosecutor's error in a death penalty case has such extreme consequences, courts review petitions for writs of habeas corpus very carefully.
Usually, individuals may only file an appeal with the next higher court in the same system in which the case originated. For example, if persons want to file an appeal from a decision in a state trial court, normally they may file their appeals only to the state intermediate court of appeals. The party who loses on appeal may then appeal to the next higher court in the system, usually the state supreme court. The state's highest court is almost always the final word on matters of that state's law.
More broadly, the losing party in any appeal may challenge their loss before the next level superior court. It is possible that an appeal may continue upward through the court system until it is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. When deciding whether to review a case, the justices of the Supreme Court use “The Rule of Four." Under this rule, if four or more of the nine Justices agree that the case has value, the court will review it.
Whether or not a case qualifies for review by the U.S. Supreme Court depends on a variety of factors, including whether it raises an issue that is relevant to federal law. And once the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled upon an issue, a person has exhausted their options within the appeals process. A person cannot appeal a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, as it is the highest court in the court system of the United States.
Costs of an Appeal
Surprisingly, many appeals can be very inexpensive. If the appeal is focused on only one clearly defined issue of law, and all sides have prepared satisfactory briefs, it may cost very little to appeal.
On the other hand, for example, when someone appeals on grounds that the verdict was reached against the weight of the evidence, their appeal can be very costly. Appeals on such grounds typically require both the printing of the entire trial record as well as extensive analysis and briefing. Such appeals are relatively expensive as they can require large amounts of lawyers' time. Additionally, they often turn out to be less successful.
In any legal process, there will be filing fees—or the fees you pay a court for its review of your case. So, keep in mind that the costs of your appeal will involve not just those for your attorney's guidance but also those that are administrative in nature.
You could also be on the hook for paying the opposing party's legal fees and costs, depending on a wide variety of common factors at play in any appeals process. For example, it's not uncommon for parties to an appeal to enter into an agreement where the losing side commits to paying these expenses. It's important to confirm this in your cost-benefit analysis as you consider whether to engage in an appeal.
Get Prepared for Your Appeal with the Help of an Attorney
If you're facing criminal charges, it doesn't hurt to look ahead at the possibility of appealing a conviction. After all, you want to understand what that would entail in your case and how much it might cost. In many situations, you could have one attorney representing you at trial and another on appeal, as some attorneys specialize in criminal appeals. Contact a litigation and appeals attorney today for more information.