Overview of the Federal Criminal Appeals Process
If you have been convicted of a federal crime, that's not necessarily the end of the road for you. The law gives you the right to appeal your conviction or sentence.
The federal appellate process can be confusing and overwhelming for those who need help understanding how it works, so having an attorney with experience in federal appeals is essential.
Simply put, an appeal is a legal process where a criminal conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher court.
While there is no constitutional right to an appeal in federal criminal cases, every state and the federal government has established a system of appeals courts to review judgments from lower courts. The role of the appeals courts is to ensure that the trial courts correctly apply the law.
The federal system has two tiers of appeals courts, which include the United States Courts of Appeals, which reviews judgments from district courts in their circuits.
The other is the United States Supreme Court which reviews judgments from the federal courts of appeals, along with the highest appeals courts of the states. Since the Supreme Court only handles a limited number of cases yearly, the Court of Appeals is the one which can correct errors in a defendant's trial or sentencing.
The following brief overview of the federal appeals process will help you make informed decisions regarding your case.
The Federal Court Structure
The United States federal court system is organized into a hierarchical structure of three levels:
- Federal District Courts. At the lowest level are 94 federal district courts, most of which are assigned to geographical areas which serve as trial-level courts for cases related to federal law. If you've been convicted of a federal crime, your trial occurred in one of these courts.
- Courts of Appeals. The next tier involves 13 federal circuit Courts of Appeals, which review decisions from the district courts in their respective geographical jurisdictions. If you file a federal appeal, your case will be reviewed by the Court of Appeals overseeing your District Court.
- United States Supreme Court. Located in Washington, DC, this is the highest court in the land with ultimate authority over all other courts.
While federal law is relatively uniform across the circuits, and all federal courts of appeals apply the same Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.
Sometimes, there are disagreements between the circuits in interpreting federal law. Any disputes between courts of appeals on crucial issues of law, known as “circuit splits,” are one of the most common reasons the Supreme Court might decide to review a case.
You can petition the Supreme Court to hear your case if your Court of Appeals rules against you. However, since the Supreme Court hears only a limited number of cases per year, typically over matters of Constitutional Law, the appeals process for the vast majority of cases ends with the Court of Appeals.
How Does the Federal Appeals Process Work?
If you and your attorney disagree with the verdict in your federal trial and believe justice was not properly served, you have the right to file an appeal with your respective Court of Appeals.
This process begins with filing an initial Notice of Appeal with the appellate court within 14 days of the judgment, then submitting legal briefs outlining the merits of the appeal to the higher court.
Courts have denied defendants the opportunity to appeal their convictions when the notice of appeal is filed late.
A panel of three appellate judges then reviews the case. Note that the Court of Appeals does not re-try your case, nor can you present new evidence.
Instead, this Court takes a critical look at the actions and rulings in the trial court to look for errors of law or practice to ensure all procedures were executed fairly and applicable laws were applied accurately.
The parties will submit briefs, the essential document in an appeal. The attorneys must make all their arguments for affirming or reversing a judgment in brief. These arguments must be presented clearly and entirely because federal appeals judges will only consider arguments in the briefs.
In some cases, the judges will allow attorneys to present oral arguments, but most appeals are decided only based on the written briefs.
Notably, the panel may set a case for oral argument, but this does not guarantee that the case will be decided in your favor. Federal courts typically do not reverse criminal convictions without oral argument.
The panel assigned to your case will read the briefs, review the record, and decide on the case. At the end of this process, the court of appeals will issue a written decision with a detailed opinion explaining the outcome.
The opinion will typically review the arguments made by the parties, the facts of the case, and explain why they made their decision. Sometimes, the Court of Appeals might issue a shorter, “per curiam” opinion that affirms or reverses a case without a discussion.
What Are the Possible Outcomes of an Appeal?
As the defendant, you will not appear before the appellate judges. At the end of their review, the judges will do one of the following:
- Uphold the lower court's ruling;
- Overturn the ruling; or
- Remand the case back to the lower court to correct specific errors, which may or may not affect the outcome of your case. The higher court will decide whether to overturn or uphold the lower court's ruling.
If your federal conviction is overturned, you may be granted a new trial, or in some cases, your charges may be dismissed. On the other hand, if the Court of Appeals upholds the lower court's verdict, your conviction remains in effect, and any sentences imposed remain in force.
What Can Be Argued on an Appeal?
An appeal is not the same as a new trial or deciding whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. Instead, the court of appeals is focused on whether the trial court correctly applied the law.
This means deciding what arguments to raise on appeal is complicated. However, there are several essential considerations in selecting the correct issues to argue on appeal, which include the following:
- A standard of review refers to how a court of appeals might handle a trial court's decision, such as clear error, de novo, or abuse of discretion.
- An error preservation refers to whether the defendant properly objected to the error in the trial court and preserved their right to appeal.
- To win a reversal on appeal, the defendant must demonstrate that the trial court's error most likely impacted the trial outcome.
Can I Appeal a State Conviction to the Federal Courts?
Generally, not. Each state has its appellate court system and State Supreme Court, and if you're convicted of a crime at the state level, you will follow the appeals process for your state.
It is possible to appeal the decision of your State Supreme Court to the U.S. Supreme Court, but only in cases that directly affect the interpretation of constitutional law.
How Do Appellate Judges Decide Cases?
Appellate judges are tasked with deciding the outcomes of appeals cases—typically disputes arising from trial court rulings.
In doing so, these judges consider the facts and arguments presented in the briefing documents filed at each step throughout the appeal. In addition, if oral arguments are held, appellate judges will frequently ask questions to ensure they fully understand all aspects of the dispute.
Ultimately, however, it is up to the appellate panel to decide which legal precedent applies to the case and how it should be applied. Usually, this means analyzing statutory text, prior decisions, and other legal authorities to make a decision that ensures justice is served.
Filing a federal appeal is a complicated and time-consuming process. Therefore, you should never attempt to handle a federal appeal without the assistance of an experienced federal criminal defense attorney familiar with the specific rules and regulations governing these cases.
Ultimately, your best chance for success lies in having a knowledgeable lawyer by your side every step of the way.
You can contact our law firm by phone or using the contact form to review the case details and legal options. We provide legal representation on federal criminal matters across the United States. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.