Appeals

An appeal is a request from a party in a lower court proceeding to a higher (appellate) court asking the appellate court to review and change the decision of the lower court. If a defendant in a criminal case is found guilty of a charge or charges, the defendant has the right to appeal that conviction or the punishment or sentencing. It is common for convicted defendants to appeal their convictions.

The defendant in a criminal trial may appeal after she or he is convicted at trial. In fact, it is very common for convicted defendants to appeal their convictions and/or sentencing. Usually only the defendant in a criminal trial may appeal. The prosecutor may not appeal if the defendant is acquitted (found “not guilty”) at trial. The prosecutor may not put the same defendant on trial for the same charge with the same evidence. This kind of retrial is known as “double jeopardy.” Double jeopardy is expressly prohibited under the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. However, prior to or during a criminal trial, a prosecutor may be able to appeal certain rulings, such as when a judge has ordered that some evidence be “suppressed” Appeals that take place in the midst of a trial are called interlocutory appeals. In most cases, appeals can be very complicated; the appellate court tends to enforce technical rules for proceeding with an appeal.

In criminal cases, a federal court may review a conviction after all of the usual appeals have been exhausted. A convicted defendant may request one of these reviews in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus—Latin for “you have the body.” Only a very small percentage of these petitions are granted. In death penalty cases, these proceedings have become highly controversial. Since a judicial or prosecutor’s error in a death penalty case has such extreme consequences, courts review petitions for writs of habeas corpus very carefully.

The procedures of appellate courts consist of the rules and practices by which appellate courts review trial court judgments. Federal appellate courts follow the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure. State appellate courts follow their own state rules of appellate procedure. In both state and federal jurisdictions, appeals are commonly limited to “final judgments.” There are exceptions to the “final judgment rule,” including instances of plain or fundamental error by the trial court, questions of subject-matter jurisdiction of the trial court, or constitutional questions.

The issues under review in appellate court centers on written briefs prepared by the parties. These complex documents list the questions for the appellate court and enumerate the legal authorities and arguments in support of each party’s position. Most appellate courts do not hear oral arguments unless there is a specific request by the parties. Few jurisdictions allow for oral argument as a matter of course. Where it is allowed, oral argument is intended to clarify legal issues presented in the briefs and lawyers are constrained to keep their oral presentations strictly to the issues on appeal. Ordinarily, oral arguments are subjected to a strictly enforced time limit. This time limit can be extended only upon the discretion of the court.


Inside Appeals