State Appellate Practice

The United States contains two co-existing judicial systems. One system includes the range of state and local courts established by individual state governments, and the other is the federal system created by the Constitution and Congress. The state courts have the general power to decide most cases within the confines of the US Constitution and Supreme Court decisions, the individual state's constitution and state law. The great bulk of legal proceedings take place at the state level because federal courts can resolve only those matters granted them by the US Constitution. Therefore, the general legal business of the country tends to occur in the state courts.

State appellate courts review the decisions of state trial courts. The trial court is the basic judicial unit, and parties must submit their legal disputes to this forum for initial adjudication. Once a trial court reaches a decision in either a civil or criminal matter, however, the "loser" retains the right to take the issue to a higher court for further review. Since each state established its own court system, the appellate court systems vary from state to state. Some states follow the federal model and use an intermediate court of appeals with a state supreme court as the final decision-maker. Other states employ a more simplified process in which the state supreme court is the only appeals forum. In either case, an unfavorable ruling by a state's highest court gives the losing party the right to appeal directly to the US Supreme Court; however, in some cases the Supreme Court may decline to hear arguments that do not involve important legal issues requiring judicial clarification. If the Supreme Court chooses not to hear a case, the last decision endures.

The appeals process commences with an unfavorable ruling against one of the parties that concludes the trial. The case may have proceeded to a final verdict or the court may have dismissed the suit, giving the losing party the option to seek further review of the decision. The losing party has a very limited time in which to appeal the trial court decision; the exact time limit varies from state to state. If the appellant does not meet the state's deadline for starting an appeal, he or she loses the right to continue, and the trial decision will stand.

The trial court is the only court that may take evidence to build a factual "record" of the case. When presented with an appeal of a trial court's decision, the appellate court may review only the behavior of the trial court and its application of the law to the facts on the record.

  • Example: In a criminal case, the factual record from trial may include details about a search of the defendant's home that yielded important evidence. On appeal, the appellate court may review the trial court's decision that the search was lawful and that therefore the evidence could be presented at trial, but the appellate court may not hear new evidence about a witness discovered after trial who saw the police act illegally during the search.

Despite the limited nature of appellate review, appeals courts have substantial power over trial court decisions. In deciding whether the trial court reached the proper decision based on the trial record, the appellate court can completely reverse the trial court's decision or it may take less drastic measures and modify a ruling or send the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. If a case involves multiple issues, the appellate court may treat each issue differently, reversing part of a decision but affirming other portions. A skillful appellate attorney can frame the issues and provide arguments to guide the appellate court toward a favorable result.

When an appeal comes before the court, the environment is very different from the trial courtroom. The lawyer faces a panel of judges and presents his or her legal theory of the case through oral argument. These arguments are also submitted to the court through a written appellate brief that the judges review prior to the court date. The lawyers each have an opportunity to speak for a limited period of time and, in some cases, retaining a short period to rebut the other side's arguments. The lawyers' arguments must stick to the issues raised in the briefs. The appellate judges address questions about the case to the attorneys during their presentations but do not render a decision in court. Instead, they discuss the case and prepare a written decision that is released at a later date. Since this type of legal work is very technical and requires different skills from trial practice, many lawyers specialize in appeals. Individuals and businesses seeking appellate assistance should look for specific experience with this type of court.

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