What is the Appellate Process?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2019
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The appellate process is the means through which a court’s decision is challenged and reviewed. The specifics of what is required to launch an appeal, succeed, and obtain a new judgment vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, even within one country. Every country with a legal system has an appellate process as a way for parties to challenge decisions they disagree with or believe were somehow flawed. How appeals must be filed, which courts will review the appeals, and the weight of the ultimate decision varies according to local rules, though the goals of the appellate process are generally consistent.

Having the ability to challenge a court’s decision is universally acknowledged to be a way of ensuring impartiality and fairness in the court system. A judge who issues a finding based on bias, undue influence, or improper consideration of the facts will be held accountable for his actions through the appellate process. Although every jurisdiction handles appeals differently, they are an invaluable aspect of every legal system.

In the United States, courts devoted entirely to appeals exist at both the state and national level. Each state has an appellate court system that operates under its own set of rules. Federal appellate courts also sit in every state. In the United States, national law is applied through a circuit court system made up of district and appellate courts in 11 circuits. Each circuit contains three or more states.


The appellate process in the United States is hierarchical. Trials, both civil and criminal, begin in low-level district or local courts. If a party takes issue with the court’s ruling, he appeals it either to a lateral court or to a court at the next level up. From the bottom, the next court up is usually a specifically appellate court. Parties who are still unsatisfied can appeal even appellate court decisions.

Appellate appeals are generally referred to a state’s supreme court, or, in the federal circuit system, to the United States Supreme Court. State supreme court cases can also be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court is sometimes referred to as “the court of last resort”—its opinions cannot be appealed, and are binding law for the entire country.

The focus of appeals in the U.S. legal system is on how the lower court applied the law to a given set of facts. Appellate courts rarely revisit the facts of a case, and appellate court hearings do not involve witnesses or evidence. If an appellate court determines that more facts are needed to make a decision, it will usually remand the case back to the court of original jurisdiction.

Arguments at the appellate level are generally based on written briefs. Appellate courts usually also have discretion with respect to whether or not to accept a case for review. The governing legal rules will determine the court’s flexibility with respect to accepting or rejecting an appeals petition. It is generally the case that far more appeal petitions are filed than are actually accepted, but most jurisdictions have certain scenarios in which an appeal must be granted. The only way to know for sure what a specific appellate process entails is to consult the local rules.


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