What is an Appeal?
An appeal is a request to a high court to review a decision of a lower court. The criminal justice system, including state, federal and military systems, is comprised of two types of courts: (1) trial courts and (2) appeals or appellate courts.
Trial courts are where determinations of fact are made. Trial court is where a defendant is arraigned, conducts discovery, files motions and either resolves the case with a pretrial disposition (by pleading guilty) or proceeds to trial. Appeals courts review decisions of trial courts. Defendants in the criminal justice system have a number of rights afforded to them by law. If a defendant feels that a trial court rendered an adverse decision in violation of his or her rights, the defendant may file an appeal.
Appellate courts review actions of a trial court for legal error. These appeals courts function as a check and balance on trial courts to ensure the participants of a trial, to include the judge, attorneys and jurors, act in compliance with the law and their respective duties under the law. Where a party is aggrieved by an adverse trial court decision, he or she may file an appeal. Appeals must be filed in the appellate court that reviews decisions of the particular trial court from which the appealing party seeks relief. The party who files an appeal is called the appellant. The party who responds to or defends against the appeal is called the appellee.
In most circumstances, a criminal defendant is the party filing an appeal. The majority of appeals challenge guilty verdicts after trial, adverse motions rulings by a trial judge and the reasonableness of sentences imposed. There are various other grounds for filing an appeal, but these are the main bases. An appeal may be filed either during the pretrial phase of a case or after the case concludes with either a trial or a guilty plea. Appeals filed while a case is pending in trial court are known as interlocutory appeals. These appeals most often seek to challenge pretrial rulings of the trial court, normally in connection with motions. Both the defendant and the government may file for interlocutory appeal. Appeals filed after a case concludes are by defendants aggrieved from a trial court decision, normally for being found guilty after trial. A defendant who loses at trial may appeal the guilty verdict claiming that harmful errors occurred at trial that adversely affected his constitutional trial rights such as to effective assistance of counsel or to a fair trial. If a defendant wins his case by acquittal or a finding of not guilty after trial, there is no right to or grounds for an appeal. The government also cannot appeal a defendant’s acquittal or finding of not guilty.
Filing an appeal involves two main steps: (1) written submissions and (2) oral argument. When an appeal is first filed, the appealing party files a document with the court known as an appellate brief. The responding or defending party then files a reply brief. The appealing party is given the last word with the option to file a response. Thereafter, once the appeals court has had an opportunity to review the parties’ written submissions, the case may be scheduled for oral argument. Appeals courts are very different from trial courts. The parties do not appear before a jury, like in trial court, to reargue the case. Rather, they appear before a panel of judges who must vote by majority to uphold the lower court decision, overturn or reverse the decision or send the case back to the trial court for additional findings of fact. The panel may consist of between three and nine appellate judges. The number of judges siting on the panel varies by court and jurisdiction (state, federal or military) where the appeal is filed. These judges first review the parties’ written briefs. Thereafter, the parties appear before the appellate panel to argue the points contained in their written submissions. The parties are afforded a limited amount of time for argument. During argument, the lawyers for the parties make oral remarks and presentations, as well as respond to and answer questions posed to them by the appellate judges sitting on the panel.
After oral arguments conclude, the appellate court later issues a written decision known as a legal opinion, regarding the appeal. These opinions may be published or unpublished. Published appeals become part of the large body of law known as case law, which becomes the law of the land. This means they become controlling and binding on lower courts within the jurisdiction. Unpublished appellate decisions have no binding effect, but can be used as persuasive authority in other cases. If a party is dissatisfied with the decision on appeal, they may file for further appellate relief to a higher appellate court within the jurisdiction where such higher authority exists. Some jurisdictions have various levels of appeals courts thereby permitting further requests for appellate relief to a higher authority. Other jurisdictions do not. Whatever the case may be, once the highest appeals court within the jurisdiction renders a decision on the appeal, the decision becomes final.
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If you believe you have basis for an appeal, contact the RI defense attorneys at the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III by email or call today at (401) 351-5100 to schedule a free consultation.