A federal appeal is a challenge to a previous legal determination. The person seeking the appeal is known as an appellant, while the party defending the case is called an appellee.
The judges are randomly assigned to cases as they are filed.
Courts of Appeal
The United States Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over all cases and appeals, but there are 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeal in the federal system. Each of the numbered circuits has a court of appeal, which hears challenges to district court decisions and also hears some appeals from decisions of certain administrative agencies.
Unlike the Supreme Court, appeals courts do not review the facts of a case; they focus on whether or not the law was properly applied in the trial court. Appeals are heard by panels of three judges.
Appellate judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The number of judges in each court varies, and vacancies are filled by senior or temporary judges.
Notice of Appeal
The appeals process begins with a written document called the notice of appeal. This is filed with the district court where your case was heard. It lets the clerk and other parties know that you’re appealing the judgment or order.
Existing Rule 3(c) requires that the notice of appeal specify the “judgment (or other appellantable order)” from which the appeal is taken. But the Supreme Court held in Torres that a notice of appeal that only names the first named party and adds “et al.” isn’t specific enough to satisfy this requirement.
Your notice of appeal also tells the lower court to collect your case materials (to “assemble the record”) and send them to the Appeals Court. The Appeals Court will then enter the record and a “Notice of Record Assembly” into your appeals case file.
Appeals courts review decisions of trial courts to determine if there was an error that should change the outcome. Each side in an appeal files a brief with the court that describes what happened in the trial, cites to legal authorities, and makes arguments about why the previous decision should be affirmed or reversed.
Appellate briefs are highly technical and time-consuming to prepare. They must be carefully researched and well-written to convince the judges to agree with your attorney’s position.
Judges typically do not read reply briefs until after reading the opening brief. A sloppy, emotional or repetitive brief is unlikely to win the court’s attention. The current rules require briefs to include a statement of the case, including a description of the nature of the case, the course of proceedings and the disposition – all of which might be described as the procedural history – and a statement of facts.
In a case on appeal, attorneys for the two sides present their arguments orally before a three judge panel. Each side is allotted fifteen minutes to present its argument, and may reserve a portion of that time for rebuttal.
Oral argument is an important, and sometimes stressful, moment in the life of a case. After listening to both sides, the judges conference and write a decision. These decisions are known as opinions.
During oral argument, you can meet the judges eye to eye, without any filter from law clerks or distractions from other cases on their docket. Your goal is to communicate with and persuade the judges to rule in your favor. A successful argument may mean cementing the panel’s lean toward a particular result or perhaps saving your client from a harsh disposition.
Petition for Certiorari
The Supreme Court grants certiorari in a small number of cases each term, selecting those that have national importance or potential ramifications on legal precedent. This discretionary process ensures that the Court devotes its limited resources to the most important legal issues.
In the United States, the highest level of appeal is called a petition for writ of certiorari. This is the appellee’s formal request to the Supreme Court for review of their case.
Your Petition should make a persuasive argument for why the Court should hear your case. Typically, this involves showing that your case involves a constitutional issue of national importance; that the decision of the lower court was incorrect; or that the Court has jurisdiction. Award-winning criminal appeals lawyer Aaron Spolin has extensive U.S. Supreme Court petition experience.