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Most decisions made by a federal court (and in some instances, state court rulings) are subject to challenge. The United States Court of Appeals is part of the judicial system that generally has the last word for those who wish to challenge a ruling set forth by a lower court. 

In an appellate case, the party that seeks to appeal a decision made by a lower court is known as the appellant. The other party to the lawsuit is known as the appellee. 

Appellate proceedings feature a committee of judges (also known as justices) rather than a jury of one's peers. An appellate court’s authority extends to civil and criminal appellate cases and includes a review of a lower or trial court’s decision, evidence, and findings.

An appellate court’s authority extends to civil and criminal appellate cases and includes a review of a lower or trial court’s decision, evidence, and findings.

The federal court system's appellate procedures are governed by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, which is found in the U.S. Code. The federal system is comprised of 94 districts within twelve circuits, plus the federal appellate court, which is authorized to hear certain types of cases from all U.S. jurisdictions. Each Court of Appeals within the 12 districts hears cases from its defined jurisdiction.

In addition to these federal appellate courts, 40 states have state-level appellate courts, and the remaining 10 states operate without a dedicated intermediate appellate court.

The United States Supreme Court, also known as the Court of Last Resort, hears both original and appellate cases. The Supreme Court hears up to 150 appeals each year, chosen from thousands of requests. The cases or lawsuits that are typically chosen are those that represent critical legal principles or conflicting interpretations and findings from two lower appellate courts.

The legal issues that are chosen to be heard by the United States Supreme Court often have far-reaching impacts. In addition, the Supreme Court is required to hear specific legal appeals that are required by federal law.

The decisions and rulings handed down by an appellate court often become a legal precedent, the final word for thousands of lawsuits across the country.

How the Appellate Process Works

Those involved in a lawsuit (including individuals and other entities, like a corporation, etc.) that face an unsuccessful outcome from a trial- or lower court have the option to file an appeal.

An appeal is a type of formal legal request that asks the appellate court to review a) the lower or trial court’s decision and b) the way in which the lower court applied the law in reaching its conclusion/ruling. Note that -

  • In An Appellate Court Civil Case - the judgment – which can be handed down from a bench trial or the jury’s verdict, may be appealed from either side. 
  • In An Appellate Court Criminal Case - a defendant has the right to appeal a conviction that has been based on a guilty verdict. Either side in a criminal case also has the right to appeal a sentence that is given as the result of a guilty verdict if the sentence –
  • Violates the law.
  • Reflects an erroneous application of the sentencing guidelines.
  • Departs from relevant sentencing guidelines. Note: however, if a defendant pleads guilty, they typically waive their right to appeal, except for those legal issues arising from sentencing.

A Court of Appeals bases its final determination solely on the case records provided by the trial court. The court does not hear witness testimony or receive additional documentation or evidence to assist in their review and final decision. In addition, an appellate court reviews the case’s factual findings have been found to be blatantly erroneous. 

Courts at the appellate level must determine –

  • If enough evidence exists to support the lower court’s ruling.
  • If the trial or lower court’s application is correct and accurate.

If the appellate case is deemed to have merit, the court has the option of modifying or reversing the original ruling by the lower court.

Types of Appeals

The reasons for an appeal might vary but generally share a common theme – an aggrieved party with a claim that the trial was somehow unfair, or the wrong law had been applied.

The following are the various types of appeals.

Appeals As Of Right

Most cases on their first appeal are considered “as of right” appeals. The phrase ‘as of right’ refers to someone’s right to appeal a lower or trial court’s decision without the need for court approval from any jurisdiction.

State appellate courts are often mandated to hear those requests for an appeal that are the direct result of a trial court’s finding. Both parties in this regard can file as many ‘as of right’ appeals as needed.

Discretionary Appeals

As its name suggests, a discretionary appeal means that each party to a lawsuit must ask the court to determine if the matter in question meets the legal muster that will allow the appellate court to review the case. Many of the appeals directed to the state or country’s Supreme Court are categorized as discretionary. When filing the paperwork to request a discretionary appeal, the appellate party must include a Writ of certiorari, which is a formal petition that asks the court to review a lower court decision.

Collateral Appeals

A collateral appeal is a legal tool that can be used to challenge a sentence or conviction’s legality or constitutionality. A collateral appeal requires a petitioner to file a Habeas Corpus in a federal-level district court, which requests a review of the relevant convictions. The overwhelming majority of collateral appeals are discretionary in nature.

Direct Appeals

Direct appeals are found in civil cases and almost exclusively found in matters that are criminal in nature. A direct appeal works as a legal tool that can be used by a defendant who wishes to have their appeal heard by a federal appellate court - after the trial court has rendered their decision.

A direct appeal offers interested parties 10 days in which to file a ‘notice of appeal.’ The ‘Notice of Appeal” has one primary purpose, to inform the court of the appellant’s intent. However, the ‘Notice of Appeal’ does not include a written argument or brief.

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A direct appeal is often used to determine if a judge improperly allowed the admission of evidence or disallowed the inclusion of evidence. The following are considered appealable issues because the evidence that is used or excluded – which is based on a judge’s interpretation and ruling, directly impacts the final verdict. Other legal issues that may result in a direct appeal include -

  • A sentencing error.
  • Lack of sufficient evidence that supports a guilty verdict.
  • Jury misconduct.
  • Prosecutorial misconduct.
  • Improper jury instructions, among others.

Examples of Appellate Case Victories 

There are many examples of appellate case victories, which all have a starting point that includes a filed appeal that contests a lower court’s decision.

Proposition 22 – California’s Gig Worker Economy

Recent examples of appellate case victories with far-reaching consequences include the appellate court ruling regarding California’s Proposition 22. Proposition 22, approved by Golden State voters, was an initiativethat defined gig workers (i.e., rideshare workers, etc.) as independent contractors rather than employees.

An employee, by law, is awarded labor protections that are not state mandated for independent contractors. These protections include, in part, minimum wage laws, worker’s compensation, or unemployment insurance, to name a few. The passing of Proposition 22 was considered a win for employers because companies like Uber & Lyft would have no legal obligation to provide these benefits to their independent contractor-drivers.

And, as one would expect with this type of ruling, stock prices for ride share companies (i.e., Uber & Lyft, Inc) rose because this new law favored employers, which was likely to translate to increased profits for investors.

Update 2021 - the United States Supreme Court refuses to hear an appeal brought forth by Uber and Lyft, thereby affirming the lower court’s decision.

The following appellate case victories and rulings have significantly impacted American culture, law, and population.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

The United States Supreme Court, in Miranda v. Arizona, ruled that police are required to inform those who are taken into custody as to their right to remain silent and their right to receive attorney assistance.

This ruling reversed an Arizona Supreme Court ruling (and two other related appellate cases) and affirmed a judgment made by the Supreme Court in California that had also been on appeal.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is based on the privileges granted by the 5th (which provides for ways to avoid self-incrimination) & 6th (which provides all defendants with the right to an attorney & speedy trial) Amendments. According to the Supreme Court, these privileges hold true for all settings.

Additionally, the court noted that if the police fail to comply with this requirement, a judge may find that one or all the statements (made by the accused who was interrogated without a proper Miranda Warning) are not admissible as evidence for a trial. Further, prosecutors are not allowed to use interrogation techniques without safeguarding the accused’s right against self-incrimination.

Importance -The appellate court’s ruling resulted in the usage of the now-famous Miranda Warning. Law enforcement and police officers are required to provide Miranda warnings to those in custody prior to any police custodial interrogation. This warning is critical because, without it, the statements obtained during the interrogation cannot be included as evidence during an upcoming trial. However, it is noted that the court has chosen to narrow and limit the warnings since the original decision.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

Legal Issue At Hand - Does the First Amendment prohibit an administrator in a school from preventing students from wearing a black armband to symbolically support an anti-war message?

The United States Supreme Court ruled in this appellate case (Tinker v. Des Moines) that students do not waive their right to the freedom of speech when entering the halls of an educational institution. In its ruling, which reversed the Southern District of Iowa’s decision, the Supreme Court noted that the free speech of each student could only be limited if a student’s actions or choices led to an avoidable disruption in the educational process. In the Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, the court ruled there that the armbands could be worn by students without disrupting the education process. As such, the Supreme Court found it was the school that had violated the student’s First Amendment right to free speech.

Importance - Tinker v. Des Moines is an important ruling with regard to any legal challenge to a First Amendment rights issue within a school’s jurisdiction.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Legal Issue At Hand – Is it constitutional to severely limit (or deny) a woman's right to and access to abortion?

With the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that a woman’s implied right to privacy (set forth by the 9th and 14th Amendments) provided women with the constitutional right to abortion access. The Supreme Court concluded, for the first time, that the Due Process Clause, found in the Fourteenth Amendment, offered broad enough protections to include a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Essentially, the Supreme Court determined that a woman’s right to make a decision about her pregnancy deserved the highest protection under the constitution.

Roe v. Wade is preparing for its 50th-anniversary celebration, which comes in 2023. This is important because, at the time when the Roe v. Wade ruling was handed down, nearly every state prohibited abortion except in those instances in which an abortion would save a woman’s life or preserve a woman’s health. Abortion was also permitted in cases of incest, fetal anomaly, or rape.

Importance - Roe v. Wade has become the cornerstone precedent in which the fight for the right of abortion is played out – in a legal court and the court of public opinion.

Regents of the University of California (Medical School) v. Bakke (1978)

Legal Issue At Hand - Can a higher learning institution utilize race in making admissions decisions?
In Regents of U.C. v. Bakke, the Supreme Court was tasked with determining if race can be used as a part of a school’s admission process without violating a student’s constitutional rights. The court concluded that race could be used in the admissions process -if, and this is important, the school does NOT use fixed quotas.

In this specific appellate case, U.C. used a fixed quota as a part of its admissions criteria. This ultimately led to the court’s conclusion that U.C.’s admissions process was unconstitutional because the criteria violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Importance -This 1978 decision was the starting point for a string of lawsuits in which the court continued to uphold and support the placement and usage of affirmative action programs.

For example, in Gratz v. Bollinger & Grutter v. Bollinger, (2003), the court had opportunities to clarify its position - that race can be included within an admissions program criteria if its intent is to promote racial diversity. Schools that choose to use race in the admissions process must be cautious, which includes a narrow definition, and proactively avoid the creation of a racial preference. However, it is noted that those admissions protocols that do create the preferential treatment of one race over another would indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause.

The United States of America (USA) v. Timothy James McVeigh (1998)

Legal Issue At Hand – The Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeals Upholds the Death Penalty Sentence for A Bomber

In 1997, Timothy J. McVeigh was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in April 1995. His lawyers appealed to the Tenth Circuit Appellate Court. The McVeigh appeal illustrates how an appellate court considers and ultimately reviews a case involving the death penalty. 

This decision from the Tenth Circuit Appellate Court with regard to the USA v. Timothy James McVeigh, affirmed the district court’s ruling, which had convicted Timothy McVeigh on all eleven counts, and as a result, sentenced him to death.

Frosty Treats, Incorporated. v. Sony Computer Entertainment America (2005)

Legal Issue At Hand – Is it Okay for an Ice Cream Brand to be Used in a Violent Video Game?

In what was to become a landmark trademark case, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals was tasked with determining if a lower court’s decision was constitutional and correct with regard to a trademark violation or infringement.

Nathalie Nicole Smith states that working hard and staying true to yourself are sure ways to win in life.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2005 ruling, affirmed a lower court’s original decision. The decision from the Eighth Circuit appellate court ruled that the name of the company alone – Frosty Treats, was not famous enough or distinctive enough to be granted protection from being used within a video game that featured violence. The court noted the name – Frosty Treats appeared to be more descriptive than a trademark.