State and federal trial court decisions are often subject to review by an appeals court, including the decisions regarding civil cases. The appeals court looks at the proceedings to determine any errors of law made. If they believe that an error was made during the judicial process, they may reverse the original decision. Each party is allowed to submit briefs to the court and is granted the chance to have an oral argument. Once the appeals court has made its decision, the opportunity for further appeals is limited. Appeals are rising in number causing the state and federal courts to rush to catch up.
Trials vs. Appeals
Trials are similar to appeals in some ways, but are very different in others. At trial, the parties will present their cases by calling witnesses and presenting evidence such as documents, photos, reports, surveys, etc. The jury will then weigh the combination of testimony and evidence and determine what they believe the truth is. A jury is thus referred to as the finder of fact. The judge will control all the motion in the courtroom and make legal decisions such as ruling on motions to object. The judge is the finder of law, and if the parties have chosen a bench trial instead of jury trial the judge will find both the fact and the law.
An appeal is a review of the trial court's application of the law. There is no jury in an appeal, nor do the lawyers present witnesses or, typically, other forms of evidence. The court will accept the facts as they were revealed in the trial court, unless a factual finding is clearly against the weight of the evidence. A single judge also presides over a trial, while an appeal is heard by several judges at once. In some cases, the judges may not be present at the same time and may gather in panels to hear the appeal.
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 trial judge incorrectly applied the law. The party that won will argue that the trial court's decision was correct. Both parties will provide evidence to their point such as previous cases and laws and statutes. An appeal is a more scholarly proceeding than a trial. Instead of relying on the trial and using witnesses to their advantage, appellate lawyers build cases through the brief, before the appeal is heard. Appeals often include a short period for oral argument, but the judges often consume this period with questions for the attorney, prompted by the briefs.
Appeals court decisions turn on the record, which documents what happened in the trial court. The record contains the pleadings, pre-trial motions, a transcript of what occurred during trial, the exhibits put into evidence, post-trial motions, and any discussion with the judge that did not take place "off the record." The success of an appeal therefore depends on what occurred at trial. If an attorney failed to get critical, available evidence into the record, or to object to something prejudicial, the opportunity to do so is lost.
The party that loses in the appeals court can further appeal to the state supreme court or U.S. Supreme Court. Review is discretionary and due to the high volume of cases that are pending appeal the judges choose the ones that will answer unsettled questions of law. They can also only review cases that raise a federal or constitutional issue because to do otherwise would go outside the power of their jurisdiction.
If you have more questions about the appeals process or are looking for a trial lawyer to help you win your case, call our office today.