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Appellate Law Overview

What happens if you are unhappy with a verdict or ruling from a trial court? Whether the decision was made by a judge or a jury, any party can appeal the case to a higher tribunal. Generally, if the case was initially heard in state court, it should be appealed to the state appellate court. The federal circuit courts of appeals hear cases appealed from the U.S. District Courts. Additionally, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit can hear appeals from cases across the country, in specialized areas such as patent laws or cases decided by the Court of Federal Claims.

Appellate courts generally do not afford you a “new” trial and will not hear new evidence that wasn’t presented to the trial court. Rather, courts of appeal review what transpired in the trial court and determine whether proper procedures were followed and the law was applied correctly. Appellate courts generally defer to the trial court or jury findings regarding factual issues, and only examine how the law was applied during the trial.

To initiate an appeal, the “appellant” – the party appealing – must file a notice of appeal in the trial court, and designate an appellate record consisting of materials from the trial court which the appellant wishes to present to the appellate court. The deadline to file a notice of appeal in state court varies, but is commonly 30 days in many jurisdictions, with some allowing 60 days. In federal cases, the notice of appeal must be filed within 30 days after the judgment is entered.

Appellate cases generally involve three legal briefs, all of which must contain citations to cases and statutory or other legal authorities. Briefs must also contain proper citations to the designated appellate record. First, the appellant files an opening brief with the court of appeals. This brief must explain the factual and procedural history of the case, in a neutral fashion, and then state how the trial court erred and why the appellate court should reverse the ruling. The “appellee” – sometimes called the “respondent” – then files a responsive brief with the appellate court. Like the opening brief, this response should also neutrally explain the factual and procedural history, followed by argument that the trial court was correct and the ruling should not be reversed. Finally, the appellant then has an opportunity to file a reply brief. In the reply, the appellant can argue against the claims made in the appellee’s responsive brief, but is not permitted to introduce any new legal arguments. The reply must only address statements made in the responsive brief.

Typically, after the briefs are filed, a panel of appellate court judges will hear oral argument, which can take place anywhere from a few months to a year or more after the appeal is filed, depending on the court. However, some courts will decide cases based solely on the briefs, without hearing oral argument. The appellate panel will issue a written opinion stating their decision and the reasoning behind it. At the court’s discretion, the opinion may be published in the official reports and become binding authority over future cases. The timing of this written opinion varies considerably among different courts, but is generally a period of several months.

If a party is dissatisfied with an appellate court ruling, an appeal may be initiated in a higher court, such as a state supreme court or the U.S. Supreme Court. The appropriate court depends on a number of factors, including which court made the initial ruling and whether the subject matter involves a federal question. Generally, the supreme courts are not required to hear every case and may choose which matters they will decide. These courts typically hear cases where lower courts have made conflicting decisions regarding the same issue, in order to provide uniformity in the law.


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