If you have received an unfavorable ruling at trial, you may, under certain circumstances, ask that your case be reviewed by a higher court, known as an appeals court. In most instances, cases filed in state courts must be appealed through the state court system, and federal trial results must be appealed through the federal courts. There are instances, however, where the decisions of a state court can be appealed to a federal court.
Grounds for Filing an Appeal
As a general rule, you may only appeal errors of law—the factual determinations of a jury are never subject to appeal. Errors of law can take many forms—the two most common occur when:
- The court may erroneously allows or excludes evidence by sustaining or overruling objections regarding the admissibility of evidence
- The court allows inaccurate instructions to go to the jury regarding the law—Because jurors don’t know the law, they must be provided with “instructions.” Typically, the instructions will indicate that, if the jury makes a specific factual conclusion, they must apply the law to that factual conclusion in a certain way. Jury instructions are customarily submitted by counsel for one of the parties, subject to objections by opposing counsel, and subject to review by the judge.
The Steps in an Appeal
First, the party seeking to overturn the lower court’s ruling must file a notice of appeal in the trial court. This creates an appellate record, containing the information from the trial court that the appellant (the appealing party) wants to share with the appellate court. The parties then submit written arguments of law, known as appellate briefs. The appellate court reviews the briefs and schedule oral arguments to address the legal issues involved. The court will then render its decision, customarily issuing a written opinion in support of its conclusion.
How an Appeals Court Differs from a Trial Court
In the American judicial system, juries are assigned the job of determining the facts, and judges are typically tasked with determining the law. Because issues of fact cannot be appealed, there is no need for a jury at the appellate level. Appeals courts are typically panels of judges, usually appointed. The appellate courts generally don’t take any factual testimony, and don’t consider physical evidence.