Understanding the Appeals Process in the American Legal System

The Process for Challenging a Court’s Decision

Appellate LawIn the American legal system, when you’ve gone through a legal proceeding and received an unfavorable result, you may have the right to file an appeal, asking a higher court to review the decision and change the outcome. This area of practice is known as appellate law. Though it often involves hearings before judges, it’s distinctly different from trial practice, with a different focus and different rules.

What Is Appellate Law?

Appellate law focuses on the reevaluation of decisions made by lower courts. Typically, all cases are tried in a trial court. The outcome of a case is usually a judgment or a dismissal. If one of the parties involved is not satisfied with the outcome, that party may appeal it. Appellate law governs how judgments may be appealed, when a judgment should be reversed, and how appeals should be presented to the court.

An appellate attorney may represent a party seeking to overturn a trial court ruling or a party seeking to affirm a prior court decision. As a general rule, appellate courts do not consider any errors that a jury in a lower court may have made in determining the facts; rather, a court of appeals looks only at arguments that the lower court made mistakes in interpreting the law or applying the law to the facts. Examples of appealable errors include the admission of illegally obtained evidence, the wrongful denial of a right to testify at trial, or errors by the court in instructions of law to a jury.

The Different Types of Appeals

A party may have an appeal as a matter of right or the appeal may be discretionary. To file and move forward with an appeal as a matter of right, the petitioner (person seeking to appeal the prior ruling) does not need the approval of any court. With a discretionary appeal, however, the court to which the appeal is made has the right to accept or reject the appeal. In the federal court system, a party to a U.S. district court ruling typically has an appeal to the federal circuit court of appeal as a matter of right. Most states also allow parties to a trial to file an appeal as a matter of right. Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court and to subsequent state appellate courts, however, are usually discretionary.

What Are the Appellate Courts?

Within the federal court system, there are two courts of appeals: the federal circuit courts typically take appeals for decisions rendered in the U.S. district courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court has the legal authority to consider appeals from rulings of the circuit courts.

Though every state has its own court system, naming conventions, and rules, each state provides some means by which litigants can seek to overturn a trial court’s ruling. All states have a supreme court, and most also have an intermediate court of appeals.

How Do Appellate Courts Work?

Appellate courts do not take testimony from witnesses and do not consider factual arguments. When an appellate court takes a case, the first step is typically the submission of appellate briefs. An appellate brief contains a summary of the pertinent facts and a thorough discussion of all prior laws relevant to the issues being appealed. The petitioner files their brief first, then the respondent (the party who prevailed in the lower court) files their brief.

Once the appellate briefs are filed, the court of appeals will determine whether oral arguments are necessary or if the court will decide the appeal based only on the briefs. During oral arguments, attorneys for both sides present their arguments and respond to questions from the appellate judges.

The appellate court may choose to reverse a lower court decision and find in favor of the appellant, or it may opt to send the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings, including a new trial. An appellate court will reverse a judgment only if the trial court made legal errors. An appellate panel will provide its decision in a detailed written opinion.

If the first (or intermediate) appellate court rejects the appeal, the petitioner may appeal to the next highest court (the “supreme” court), but such an appeal will generally be discretionary.

The Work of Appellate Lawyers

An appellate practice involves different duties and requires different skills than most other areas of law. An appellate attorney spends a lot of time conducting legal research and must have strong writing and oral advocacy skills. They must also have keen legal analysis abilities. Their essential work involves writing briefs to submit to the court and then making their arguments in person, if the court requires oral arguments in the case. In some cases, the court may decide the appeal based only on the arguments in written briefs.

Appellate lawyers do not generally consider facts or gather evidence from witnesses. Whereas trial attorneys typically spend a lot of their time in discovery, at depositions, or preparing interrogatories or requests for production, appellate attorneys focus their attention on legal principles and legal issues.

What Are the Grounds for an Appeal?

Both civil and criminal verdicts and rulings may be appealed. In both types of proceedings, the decision may be appealed if the appellant/petitioner can show that the court made an error of law, i.e., any type of ruling that is inconsistent with established law. Often, such errors are based on evidentiary issues—evidence that was wrongfully admitted or wrongfully not allowed at trial. In criminal cases, it’s also common for a defendant to appeal based on allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel.

How Much Does It Cost to Appeal a Ruling?

Appellate lawyers generally bill for their time on an hourly basis. The total cost of an appeal can therefore vary significantly, depending on the complexity of the legal issues involved.


In the American legal system, a party at trial typically has a right to appeal an adverse ruling of a trial court, if it can be shown that the court made an error of law during the proceedings. In an appeal, the court generally looks only at legal issues that may have been incorrectly decided. Some appeals may be decided based only on briefs, which include summaries of fact and arguments of law submitted by the parties. In some cases, the appellate court may decide to hear oral arguments on an appeal. Appellate attorneys typically have considerable legal research and writing skills and strong oral advocacy skills.

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