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Appealing a Court Decision or Judgment

Appealing a court decision is a complex legal process. This is the step where parties can challenge legal errors in the outcome of the case by asking the higher court to review the order of the lower court. If you are appealing a court judgment, it is best to learn the basics of the rules of appellate procedure.

The following is an overview of the appellate process. It details the steps in challenging court decisions and the distinctions between trials and appeals.

Initiating the Appeal Process

Most civil and criminal decisions of a state or federal trial court and agencies' administrative decisions are subject to review by an appellate court. This process often begins with the filing of a notice of appeals.

Whether the appeal concerns a judge's order or a jury's verdict, an appellate court reviews what happened in prior proceedings for any errors of law. This means losing parties can't appeal a case because they're unhappy with the outcome. They may only challenge decisions that may have resulted from legal errors. The following are some examples of legal errors that can be challenged in an appeal:

  • Misinterpretation of legal precedent: For instance, the state court applies outdated or irrelevant case law when issuing a court decision
  • Reliance on evidence that should have been excluded: When the court admitted a piece of evidence that was unlawfully obtained by the party or was otherwise inadmissible
  • Jurisdictional errors: The trial court does not have the jurisdiction or legal authority to issue a ruling or hear the case

The Basics of Appealing a Court Decision

If the court finds an error that contributed to the trial court's decision, the appellate court will reverse that court order. The lawyers for the parties submit written briefs to the court. The court may also allow them to conduct an oral argument

Once an appeals court issues a final decision, the opportunity for further appeals becomes limited. As the number of parties filing civil appeals has risen, the state and federal court systems have implemented changes to keep up.

What Is the Difference Between Trials and Appeals?

A trial and an appeal have a few similarities and significant differences.

Trials at a Glance

The parties present their cases at trial, calling witnesses for testimony and presenting other evidence such as documents, photographs, reports, surveys, diaries, and blueprints. The jury weighs this evidence and determines the facts of the case to determine what they believe happened. A jury is sometimes called the "finder of fact."

The trial judge controls the activities in the courtroom and makes all the legal decisions, such as ruling on motions and objections raised by the attorneys. The judge is often called the "finder of law." If the parties have chosen a bench trial rather than a jury trial, the judge will make findings of fact and law.

Appeals at a Glance

An appeal is a review of the trial court's application of the law. The party appealing the case is called the appellant or the petitioner. The appellee or the respondent is the opposing party. The appeal process begins when the appellant files a notice of appeal. The filing of the notice of appeal prompts the counting of time upon which the appellant can file the brief. The appellee also has a specified period to file an answering brief.

There is no jury in an appeal, nor do the lawyers present witnesses or other forms of evidence. The court will accept the facts revealed in the trial court unless a factual finding disputes the weight of the evidence.

Another difference between a trial and an appeal is the number of judges involved. A single judge presides over a trial. However, several judges at once hear an appeal in a higher court. The number of appellate court judges depends on the jurisdiction. Courts may have three to a few dozen judges at the initial appeals court level.

The total number of judges seldom hear claims together in larger courts. Instead, panels listen to appeals, often comprising three court judges. 

In rare instances, the full court may grant a motion for rehearing en banc. This happens when all the judges in the appeals court hear the case together and issue a new decision. 

Supreme Courts have five to nine judges at the state and federal level, referred to as U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

Understanding Varieties in Appeal Procedures

It is essential to know that the court applies different rules depending on the type of case during an appeal.

Civil Case

Either party can file an appeal challenging a court order in a civil case.

Criminal Case

The defendant can challenge a guilty verdict by filing an appeal in a criminal case. The plaintiff does not have the right to appeal a court order acquitting the defendant. Both parties in a criminal case can appeal the sentence imposed following a guilty verdict.

Other Types of Appeals

A party not pleased with the decision issued by a federal administrative agency can seek the court of appeals for review by filing a petition. For specific federal agencies or programs, these cases often require the district court to conduct a judicial review before the court of appeals. 

For instance, in disputes related to Social Security benefits, a Social Security official who was previously not involved in the original administrative decision reviews the case. If you disagree with the original decision, you can ask an administrative law judge for a hearing.

Appellate Briefs

The main form of persuasion on appeal is the written appellate brief filed by counsel for each party. With this brief, the party that lost in the trial court will argue that the lower court's decision incorrectly applied the law. The party that won below will say that the trial court's decision was correct. Both parties will support their positions about applicable legal arguments and case laws.

An appeal is a more scholarly court proceeding than a trial. Litigators must be active strategists in the courtroom by calling witnesses, cross-examining, and making motions or objections. The appellate lawyer builds their case in the brief before the court hears the appeal. 

Appeals often include a short period for oral argument. Court judges often consume this period with questions for the attorney prompted by the briefs.

The Record on Appeal

Appeals court decisions turn on the record, which documents what happened in the trial court. The record contains the pleadings (plaintiff's complaint and defendant's answer), pre-trial motions, and a transcript of what occurred during the trial. It also includes the exhibits put into evidence, post-trial motions, and any discussion with the judge that did not happen off the record. 

The success of an appeal depends on what occurred at trial. If an attorney fails to introduce necessary or available evidence into the record or they fail to object to something prejudicial, they lose the opportunity to do so.

Advancing to Supreme Court Review

The party that loses in a state or federal appeals court may appeal to the state Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court. Most states call their highest court the Supreme Court, though New York calls theirs the Court of Appeals.

Review in these venues is discretionary with the court. As these courts receive many more requests for review than they can handle, they tend to grant review only to court orders involving unsettled questions of law.

The U.S. Supreme Court can only review cases that raise some federal or constitutional issue. Court cases that concern state law are beyond its jurisdiction. At this point, the parties have reviewed the case once, reducing their tendency to see the decisions as biased or contrary to the law.

Get Professional Help Appealing a Court Decision

The appeals process is complex and requires an attorney's expertise specializing in filing and arguing appeals. Even if you've worked with an attorney for your trial, consider hiring a specialist for your appeal. Get started by contacting a litigation and appeals attorney near you.

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