As someone who went to law school and now makes a living helping clients navigate the legal system, I’ve always found the appeals process fascinating. It’s this intricate mechanism that gives people a second chance at justice if they lose at trial. Appeals provide that critical double-check our society needs to make sure lower courts get things right. Sure, the appeals process has elaborate rules and procedures lawyers have to master, but at its core, appeals even the playing field a bit more when the stakes are high.
I still remember the thrill as a young law student intern watching oral arguments for a big appellate case. Seeing the judges pepper both sides with rapid-fire questions, I realized this was the pinnacle of legal advocacy. All the years I spent as a “law nerd” in school finally paid off with the ability to understand what was happening in that ornate courtroom. Now as a practicing attorney, I try to demystify appeals for my clients who are often sailing into that process for the first time feeling overwhelmed and confused. A basic walk-through of how appeals work can go a long way.
The first step in understanding the appeals process is knowing the grounds on which a party can appeal a civil judgment. There are several legal justifications for seeking appellate review after a trial court loss:
– Errors in legal rulings by the judge: Erroneous evidentiary rulings, jury instructions, interpretations of the law, and other discretionary decisions made by the trial judge may provide grounds for appeal if they affected the outcome.
– Insufficient evidence: The appellant may claim that the judgment was not supported by substantial evidence, or that the verdict went against the clear weight of evidence.
– Excessive or inadequate damages: Appeals courts will review whether the amount of damages awarded was disproportionate to the harm suffered.
– Procedural errors: Mistakes in following proper court procedures, such as allowing untimely submissions or improper communications with the jury, can form the basis of an appeal.
– Judicial bias or misconduct: Appellants may argue the judge demonstrated unfair bias or that the jury pool was tainted.
The first step in filing an appeal is determining whether any appealable legal errors or defects existed in the original trial. The appellate court then decides if the mistakes were significant enough to warrant reversing or modifying the judgment.
The stages involved in a civil appeal are precisely defined by statutes and court rules. Missing deadlines or skipping required steps can result in dismissal of the appeal. Here are the key steps:
Filing the Notice of Appeal
After entry of a final judgment by the trial court, the party seeking appeal has 30 days to file a notice of appeal in the trial court. This document officially indicates the appellant will seek review from the appeals court. The notice identifies the specific judgment or order the party wishes to appeal.
Assembling the Record on Appeal
The trial court clerk and court reporter then compile all the documents, transcripts, exhibits and other records from the trial court proceedings into the record on appeal. The appellant may be required to pay fees for preparing the transcripts. Both parties can designate items to be included in the record.
Filing Appellate Briefs
The appellant has 30-50 days after the record is prepared to file their opening appellate brief. This legal memorandum identifies the grounds for appeal and makes arguments why the trial court erred factually or legally. The appellee will have 30-50 days to respond with their brief defending the trial outcome.
In some appeals, the parties will have the opportunity to make oral arguments bolstering the key points in their briefs in front of the appeals court judges. However, many appellate cases today are decided solely on the briefs without oral arguments.
The Appellate Court’s Decision
After considering the legal arguments in the briefs and record, the appeals court will issue a written decision. This opinion will determine if errors affected the trial results and will either affirm the original judgment or reverse/modify it in some way.
The appeals court may take anywhere from several weeks to over a year to reach a decision. The losing party then has only limited recourse to try appealing to a higher court.
There are several kinds of remedies an appeals court may grant if it finds the lower court erred:
– Remand for a new trial: The appeals court may order an entirely new trial if it deems errors infected the original trial. This allows a clean slate for the parties to retry the case from the start.
– Remand on a single issue: The appeals court may isolate a key issue tainted by error, while affirming other trial rulings. The case gets sent back to retry only that narrow issue, keeping earlier resolutions on other matters intact.
– Reverse the judgment: The appeals court may reverse some or all of the trial court’s judgment. This nullifies the original judgment and requires alternate rulings on the appealed issues.
– Modify the judgment: The appeals court may amend the trial judgment to reduce or increase damage awards or change the relief granted if the original was excessive or insufficient.
– Remand for entry of a directed verdict: The appeals court may decide the appellant deserved judgment as a matter of law and remand for the trial court to enter judgment consistent with its decision.
– Affirm the judgment: If no harmful errors are found, the appeals court will affirm the lower court ruling, leaving the original judgment undisturbed.
Crafting a winning appeal requires strategic legal skills different from trial work. Here are tips for effective civil appeals:
– Be selective about grounds raised – Focus on one or two of the strongest arguments rather than littering your brief with every conceivable error. Including weaker arguments can water down stronger ones.
– Simplify and clarify your arguments – Appeals courts respond better to clear, concise writing framing your positions. Avoid excessive jargon or technicalities.
– Learn the applicable standard of review – Understand whether the appeals court reviews disputed issues de novo or gives deference to the trial judge’s discretion. Standards of review impact arguments.
– Use the record effectively – Ensure the record contains all documents necessary to support your appeal arguments and cite key parts in your briefs.
– Master the procedural rules – Follow all local appellate rules for formatting briefs, meeting deadlines, and requesting oral argument. Procedural missteps can doom appeals.
– Be prepared for oral argument – If granted argument, have skills for communicating positions effectively under the court’s questioning.
– Bring fresh perspective – Appellate judges have reviewed hundreds of cases. Unique insights get attention.
With proper strategy and execution, even appeals facing long odds can achieve victory.
Knowing whether to pursue an appeal requires balancing benefits against costs. Factors civil litigants should weigh include:
– Strong grounds – Evaluating objectively whether clear, prejudicial legal errors likely impacted trial results. Long-shot appeals waste resources.
– Importance of issues – Appealing judgments involving significant damages, critical legal principles, or cases destined for retrial has greater purpose.
– Opponent’s resources – Assessing whether the appellee has resources and inclination for aggressive appeals defense. Appeals greatly favor appellees.
– Appeals court composition – Researching the judicial philosophies of appeals court judges to gauge how they may view issues.
– Costs – Appealing adds substantially to litigation costs from record preparation, brief writing, legal fees, delays, etc.
– Risks of worse outcome – Losing on appeal may result in affirmation of a larger judgment than initially won at trial.
– Time urgency – If money damages continue accruing during appeal, delaying finality may not serve the appellant.
– Precedent’s importance – How much precedential impact the appeal may have for future cases involving similar facts or issues.
With the aid of experienced counsel, civil litigants can carefully weigh these dynamics in deciding if and how to appeal.
The civil appeals process provides crucial error-correction for our judicial system. But perfecting an appeal requires navigating complex rules and strategizing decisions about which issues to raise. Understanding the origins of appealable errors during trial proceedings and preserving them through objections is critical. Competent appellate counsel can then build arguments accordingly. While civil appeals are never guaranteed success, strong appellate advocacy gives truth and justice the chance to prevail.