What is a Court of Appeals?

Daphne Mallory

A court of appeals reviews the decisions made by lower courts and must decide whether the decision made by the trial judge stands or should be overturned. The party who loses the case in the lower court often has a right to appeal, and the party does so by submitting a written brief to the court of appeals. The losing party often has to show that the judge made a legal error in reaching the decision or that the jury violated the law in reaching a final judgment. The winning party may also submit a brief defending the decision made by the lower court. The court may or may not choose to hear oral arguments from both sides.

The United States Supreme Court is the final court of appeals in the country.
The United States Supreme Court is the final court of appeals in the country.

In many jurisdictions, there is a regional court of appeals as well as a national court of appeals. For example, in the United States there is a state court of appeals that is responsible for reviewing cases made in the state lower courts. A federal appellate court, on the other hand, handles cases from lower federal courts. These courts act as intermediaries between a trial court and the highest court in the land. A court of appeals often has to decide on the merits of an appeal, but the highest court may decline to review the case.

To win an appeal, the losing party has to prove that a judge made a legal error in reaching a court decision.
To win an appeal, the losing party has to prove that a judge made a legal error in reaching a court decision.

When the case reaches a court of appeals, the court is often not going to examine the evidence in the case. The focus of the intermediate appellate courts is to determine whether an error in law was made by the judge or jury. The party who is appealing the case cannot often produce additional evidence for consideration. The one exception is where the jury or judge reaches a factual conclusion that is not reasonable based on the evidence presented. The court of appeals can make a decision at that point to remand the case to the lower court or overturn the case.

Many appeals courts have panels of judges, often consisting of three justices. The party who appeals the case has to convince the panel, through written briefs and sometimes through oral arguments, that the lower court judge made an error of law. The judges on the panel often interact with the attorneys or pro se litigants to ask questions about their arguments for clarification. Both parties often have to work hard to answer the questions directly and with confidence in order to remain persuasive in their arguments.

New video evidence can help a convicted person win an appeal.
New video evidence can help a convicted person win an appeal.

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