What is an Appeal?

One of the goals of this blog is to provide useful information to our readers about the legal process. In this post and those which follow it, we will discuss appeals.

An appeal is “a proceeding undertaken to have a decision reconsidered by a higher authority.” (Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Ed.). In simpler terms, when a party files an appeal, that party asks a higher court to review the actions of a lower court. Undoubtedly, you have heard of the most important and influential appellate court, the United States Supreme Court. Whether the decision is Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated US schools, or Roe v. Wade, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion, the decisions made by the US Supreme Court have a profound influence on the laws governing our country. In addition to the Supreme Court, there are twelve intermediate federal courts of appeals and scores of intermediate appellate courts in each state.

An appellate court differs significantly from a trial court. At trial, evidence is heard, through the submission of testimony and tangible exhibits, and the decisionmaker (usually a jury, sometimes a judge) applies the facts of the case to the law and makes a decision. Once a result is achieved at trial, any of the parties to the trial can submit the final decision to an appellate court for review to determine if any errors were made at trial.

Importantly, the appellate court does not listen to testimony or take in new evidence. The appellate court’s job is simply to take all of the information presented in the trial court and to then determine if any errors were made. While normally an appeal is filed by the party that lost at trial, an appeal can be filed by any party that believes the trial court made a mistake. An appellate court can affirm or reverse the decision of a trial court or a lower appellate court. If the appellate court decides that the trial court correctly applied the law, it will affirm the judgment of the trial court. If the appellate court concludes the trial court made a significant mistake, it can reverse the decision of the trial court and remand (send back) the case to the trial court.

The most important aspect of an appeal involves written submissions, called briefs, in which the lawyers for each side present their arguments to the court and explain why the trial court made a mistake. If requested, the court of appeals will also allow the lawyers to make an oral presentation to the judges to explain their arguments and answer the court’s questions.

There are many different types of appellate courts, and it is possible that after a trial has concluded, that there could be multiple appeals of that decision to successive, different appellate courts. Because of this, it is possible that a legal case may take years to be fully resolved if the trial court’s decision is appealed.

While this is a good, rudimentary introduction to what an appeal is, in future posts we will engage in a further discussion of the appellate process, including the specific methods used by appeals courts when reviewing the rulings rendered by trial courts.

* The author of this blog post, Logan R. Martin, has interned at the Colorado Supreme Court, and served as a law clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for Tenth Circuit. You can contact Mr. Martin by phone at (303) 915-5002, or by email at logan@westerfieldlaw.com.

The materials on this site are for informational purposes only and are not to be construed as legal advice. Reading or commenting on this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship. Every situation is unique, and you should consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation.