How Does the Appeals Process Work?

Photo of the U.S. Supreme CourtAn appeal is a process whereby one party in a lawsuit undertakes to have a lower court or federal administrative agency’s decision overturned by a higher court, also typically known as an appellate court.

In civil suits, the verdict may be appealed by either party, but there are strict time limits to file for an appeal that must be followed. In criminal proceedings, the state or federal government is not eligible to pursue an appeal if the defendant is found not guilty due to double jeopardy, but the defendant is allowed to challenge a guilty verdict.

What Happens During an Appeal?

For any party filing an appeal (the “appellant”), proving that the lower court or federal administrative agency’s verdict was the result of a legal error is the most important objective. An appeal will not be considered unless a party is alleging that a mistake or error in law took place at the lower court level. Typically, facts are not reconsidered on appeal and the trial court’s findings of facts will be what the appellate court relies on for the appeal. The appellate court looks to whether the law was properly followed on the lower court level, and/or it can review the constitutionality of a law or issue in the case.

How Does the Appeals Process Work?

The party filing the appeal, the “appellant,” will have to initially present its argument to the court in writing in the form of a document known as a “brief.” Due to the fact that the court of appeals is only allowed to base its decision on material the lower court or federal agency used in reaching its verdict, the appellant’s brief is limited to using that information in attempting to convince the panel of judges of the merits of its argument. The appellant’s opposition in the lower court case who is responding to the appeal, (the “appellee”) is also allowed to present a brief defending the trial’s verdict, i.e., arguing that there was no significant legal error made in the trial that would warrant a reversal of the lower court or federal agency’s decision. Appellees can also file and seek out counter-appeals in response.

If the briefs are not enough to decide the appeal, an oral argument before the court may be necessary. At an appeals court hearing, the judges do not hear party or witness testimony. The appeals court will typically only rely on the record of the trial court and the findings of fact written by the trial court judge. The appeals judges can question the lawyers making the oral arguments before it. Once the court of appeals reaches a verdict, it is considered final except if it results in the case returning to the lower court for additional proceedings to a higher appellate court. The intermediary appellate decision can then be appealed to a higher appellate court or the state supreme court. For federal cases or cases that considered questions of the federal constitution, a party can file a “writ of certiorari” in an attempt to have the U.S. Supreme Court review the case. The U.S. Supreme Court only takes a very limited number of cases per year to review, and generally likes to choose cases where the lower federal appeals courts have different opinions on the same issue, also called a “split in the circuits.”

Lawyers That Handle Appeals

There is very little during the appeals process that you will have complete control over, having an attorney on your side who has experience successfully handling appeals is one of them. It is essential to speak to an appellate attorney as soon as possible, as most appeals must be done within only a few days after a final judgment is entered. If an appeal deadline is missed, the party will likely completely lose the opportunity for the court to consider the case, so do not hesititate to reach out to a lawyer immediately.