An appellate court is a judicial unit that reviews the orders and judgments issued by trial courts at either the federal or state level and in some cases decisions of government agencies. An appellate court reviews orders and judgments of a trial court. An appellate court considers whether, after review of all the evidence and information received by the trier of fact, the trier of fact made an error of law or fact in deciding the outcome. The person or entity asserting that the judge in the trial committed error is the appellant. The person or entity responding to the notice of appeal is the appellee.
Differences between trials and appeals
In a trial, each side presents evidence in support of their case. The evidence is presented in the form of witness testimony as to facts within the witness’s knowledge and presenting documents and other information for the jury’s review. The jury is then charged with considering the evidence presented by each side and making a finding on the facts before it. The jury’s findings represent what the jury believes happened based on the totality of the evidence presented. Except where the parties consent to a bench trial, where the judge acts as the jury or finder of fact, the judge’s role is to run the courtroom. The judge makes all legal determinations, such as what evidence may be presented to the jury. The judge also rules on motions brought by the parties.
Separate specially appointed or elected judges, not a jury, hear an appeal. The court of appeals reviews the trial court judge’s decisions in the proceeding below. Specifically, the appellate court considers whether the trial judge appropriately applied the law to the facts in the case. The appeals court takes the factual findings of the trial court as they are presented and will not reverse based on facts unless the evidence clearly does not support the findings.
A court of appeals is made up of several judges, usually between seven and twelve. In many appellate courts, a smaller panel of three judges actually hears each appeal. If there is a significant issue or a party makes a motion, the appeals court can take an appeal en banc, or with all judges hearing the case at once.
There are three possible outcomes of review by a court of appeals. (1) The trial court’s decision is affirmed, meaning there is no error and the order or judgment stands; (2) the trial court’s decision is reversed and remanded back to the trial court, usually with instructions on how to address the error and make new findings; or (3) the trial court’s decision is vacated as entirely erroneous and incapable of being corrected.
Instead of presenting new evidence, in an appeal, parties submit a written brief arguing that the trial court did or did not commit an error in applying the law. The losing party at trial is the appellant who files the appeal arguing the trial judge erred. The winning party will assert that the trial judge’s decisions were correct. The parties support these arguments with case law and statutes on the issues presented. The entire argument is presented in the brief, making the appeal process is heavily procedural. Because of this, the parties must strictly comply with all deadlines. In most cases, at the request of either side, the appeals court will hold an oral argument where the parties will have the chance to argue their cases to the appeals court in person. At oral argument, the parties clarify their views of the case and answer any questions the judges have. Since appeals judges have read the appellate briefs, the question-answer-session often monopolizes oral argument.
An appellate case is based entirely on the record created in the trial court. The record consists of the pleadings filed by the parties, any pretrial motions, the evidence admitted by the judge and a transcript of the proceedings. An appellant uses the information in the record to point out where the trial judge made errors in applying the law. An appellate court will not consider new evidence but only looks to the evidence in the record in making a decision.
A party that loses on appeal can appeal to the next higher court of appeals. This will either be a state supreme court or the U.S. Supreme Court, depending on where the trial originally took place.