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Appeals Jurisdiction

What Is Appellate Jurisdiction?

Even though the U.S. criminal justice system is designed to give defendants due process and protect their Constitutional rights, mistakes can still happen that result in unlawful convictions and violations of defendants' rights.

Fortunately, defendants have recourse to appeal their case if these things happen. Appellate jurisdiction refers to the authority of a higher court to review, correct, or overturn a lower court's decision.

Appellate Jurisdiction
Appellate jurisdiction means the authority of a higher court to review a lower court's decision.

Simply put, the term “appellate jurisdiction” refers to the ability of an appeals court to review and make decisions on cases heard by trial courts as well as other types of “lower” courts.

Article III of the United States Constitution gives the U.S. Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction in both fact and law, but it has guidelines concerning the appellate jurisdiction of lower courts. To navigate appellate court cases, most people realize quickly that they need the legal assistance of an experienced appellate lawyer.

Appellate jurisdiction includes the power to reverse or modify the lower court's decision in criminal law.  For an appellate court to hear a case, the party must typically file an appeal, which contests a lower court's decision.

In the federal court system, circuit courts have appellate jurisdiction over the cases of the district courts, and the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over the decisions of the circuit courts. 

The federal court system's appellate procedure is regulated by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, described in Title 28 of the United States Code.

Courts of Appeal form an integral part of the United States judicial system and play a key role when a party to a case believes there has been a legal error in the trial court's decision.

The Federal Appellate Court System

The federal appellate court system is structured into 13 circuits that collectively hear cases nationwide from 94 federal court districts.

Federal Appellate Court System

Twelve of these circuits are regional courts, meaning they are assigned to a certain number of districts within a region of the U.S. The thirteenth, the Federal Circuit, has nationwide jurisdiction over specific cases, such as patents and international trade. Each circuit has one appellate court, also known as the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Unlike trial courts, appellate courts do not hear evidence or witness testimonies. Instead, they review the record of the lower court proceedings to determine if a legal error affected the case outcome.

This is one of the main distinguishing features between trial courts, which focus on fact-finding, and appellate courts, which concentrate on applying law.

What is the Appeal Process?

The journey to an appellate court begins with a notice of appeal filed by the appellant, which is the party appealing the decision. The appellant cannot simply disagree with the decision for the appeals court to review the case; there must be a claim of a legal error that impacted the case's result.

Once the notice of appeal is filed, both parties submit briefs. The appellant's brief argues why the trial court's decision should be reversed, while the appellee's, the party opposing the appeal, brief counters this argument, supporting the trial court's decision.

What Is the Appellate Court's Approach?

Appellate courts approach cases through a panel of judges, usually three, who review the lower court's record and the parties' briefs. They may also hear oral arguments from the attorneys representing the parties.

The decision-making process focuses on applying and interpreting the law, not reevaluating facts established in the trial court. For example, an appellate court might consider whether the trial court correctly applied the law when allowing specific evidence or whether the defendant's rights were violated during the trial.

The U.S. Courts of Appeal apply specific standards when reviewing cases in their jurisdiction. The review standards are critical to the appellate process as they guide the appellate courts on how much deference to give to the lower courts' decisions. These standards include the following:

  • Pretrial Motions: There are many types of pretrial motions. If evidence was seized against someone using a search warrant, and they claim the seizure violated their Constitutional rights, they might be able to appeal.
  • De Novo Review: This standard is applied when an appellate court reviews a case anew as if the trial court's decision did not exist. It's commonly used for issues of law, such as the interpretation of a statute or contract, but does not review findings of fact from the trial court.
  • Clearly Erroneous Standard: Applied primarily in factual determinations made by a trial court. The appellate court will overturn the decision only if it has a firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been made.
  • Abuse of Discretion Standard: This standard is used when reviewing a decision made at the trial court's discretion, such as granting or denying a motion for a new trial. The appellate court will only reverse the decision if it believes the trial court acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, or without reference to guiding legal principles.
  • Substantial Evidence Standard: Applied in administrative law cases. The appellate court reviews the record to determine whether the agency's decision is supported by substantial evidence, meaning more than a mere scintilla but less than the weight of the evidence.
  • Harmless Error Standard: Even if an error occurred at the trial level, the appellate court will uphold the lower court's decision if it believes the error was harmless, meaning it did not affect the defendant's substantial rights.
  • Plain Error Standard: This review is applied when an error was not objected to at the trial level. The appellate court can still review the error, but only if it was obvious and affected the defendant's substantial rights, and if not corrected, would seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. 
  • Sentencing: If a judge improperly followed guidelines when sentencing and then refused to listen to your arguments or did not listen to why you should have received a lower sentence, this could possibly be appealed.

Because appellate jurisdiction only focuses on how the law was applied to a case, in other words, not re-trying the case, the appellate courts are very particular regarding interfering with the lower courts.

Federal Appeals Courts
Contact our federal lawyers for guidance.

Statistically speaking, most appeals are upheld. That's why if your case resulted in an unfavorable outcome due to errors or violations of your rights, the best path to a successful appeal is to work with a federal defense attorney experienced in the complicated appeals process and understand how to frame the arguments skillfully and persuasively.

The right to an appeal is not guaranteed. Instead, the person requesting an appeal must convince the court of appeals that the lower court incorrectly applied the law to the facts of the case. Appellate courts will not consider an appeal unless sufficient evidence is presented.

Appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have long required this requirement to show cause.  This means someone convicted of a federal offense might be unable to appeal the case.

To have the best chance of an appeal granted, you will need the legal guidance of an experienced appellate lawyer. Contact our federal criminal appeal law firm for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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