5 minute read

Appellate Court

A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.

An unsuccessful party in a lawsuit must file an appeal with an appellate court in order to have the decision reviewed. In the United States, appellate courts exist at both the federal and the state levels. On the federal level, decisions of the U.S. district courts, where civil and criminal matters are tried, can be appealed to the U.S. court of appeals for the circuit covering the district court. Eleven numbered federal judicial circuits have been established. Each circuit comprises a number of states that are usually, though not always, in close geographic proximity. For example, the Eighth Circuit includes Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, and the Sixth Circuit is made up of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. Washington, D.C., has two U.S. COURTS OF APPEALS: the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals arising out of decisions of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has exclusive and nationwide jurisdiction in appeals from U.S. District Court decisions in patent, COPYRIGHT, TRADEMARK, and other specialized areas.

A decision of a U.S. court of appeals may be appealed to yet another appellate court, the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. An appeal to the Supreme Court is made by filing a petition for certiorari (a document requesting a review of court records). The Supreme Court has broad discretion in determining whether to review decisions. The Court receives thousands of petitions a year, but can only review about one hundred cases in that span of time. It most often denies certiorari and hears only cases that raise important and unsettled constitutional questions or in which the federal appellate courts have reached conflicting decisions on the same issue.

On the state level, a decision of a state trial court—usually a district or other local court—can be appealed to a state appellate court for review. In most states, a case must first be appealed to an intermediate appellate court. If it receives an unfavorable ruling at the intermediate level, the case can then be appealed to the highest appellate court in the state, usually the state supreme court. Like the Supreme Court of the United States, a state's highest court usually has the discretion to decide whether to review a decision reached by the intermediate court. Some cases decided by the highest court in a state also can be appealed to the Supreme Court, though again the U.S. Supreme Court will hear only appeals of major significance.

In both state and federal matters, in general, an appeal can be brought only after a final decision, or final judgment, in the action has been entered. A judgment is final for the purposes of an appeal when nothing more is to be decided in the action, and it concludes all rights that were subject to litigation. This rule is based in part on the desire for judicial economy: it is more efficient for all matters to be heard in one appeal than for a case to be conducted "piecemeal" (in several appeals) before it is finally resolved. However, both state and federal courts will in some instances hear an INTERLOCUTORY appeal, which is an appeal of a matter that does not decide the entire case but must be addressed before the case can be decided on its merits. In other instances, whether an interlocutory appeal will be granted depends on the issue at hand. If the issue concerns whether the lawsuit should go forward at the trial level, it is more likely to be heard, since it may avoid an unnecessary trial. For example, an interlocutory appeal may be permitted from an order granting or denying an INJUNCTION even though the main issues in the case have yet to be tried.

The proceedings in the federal and state appellate courts are quite different from those that take place in a trial court. At the trial level, witnesses are called to testify and a jury is often present to hear evidence and reach a verdict. At the appellate level, the trial court record and briefs prepared by both parties are reviewed, and oral arguments may be heard; witnesses are not called and no jury is convened. The trial court record usually contains the pleadings that first initiated the case, a complete transcript of the court proceedings, materials admitted into evidence, and documents indicating the final judgment.

An appellate court differs from a trial court in another important respect: only the trial court determines the factual issues in a case. In its review, the appellate court does not try factual issues. Instead, it determines only whether there is sufficient evidence to support the findings of the trial court and whether the trial court correctly applied the law.

Both the appellant (the party appealing the lower-court ruling) and the appellee (the party against whom the appeal has been brought) file written briefs with the appellate court. The briefs—which recite the facts of the case, the arguments being raised on appeal, and the applicable law—help the court decide whether the trial court erred in its decision.

The appellate court may also hear oral arguments in the case. During oral argument, each party has ten to fifteen minutes to persuade the appellate court to rule in its favor. If numerous issues have been raised, a party may choose to use most of this time to cover the issues that are most crucial to the decision to be made. The court is free to interrupt an oral argument with questions concerning the facts of the case or the particular areas of law involved. The appellate court, at its discretion, may determine that oral argument is not necessary and may decide the case based only on the trial court record and the written briefs.

In making its decision, the appellate court may affirm the trial court, meaning that it accepts the decision of the lower court, or may reverse it, thus agreeing with the appellant's contention that the trial court's decision was erroneous. It may also modify the decision; in this instance, the court may accept part of the trial court's decision while ruling that other issues were erroneously decided.

The appellate court usually issues its decision in the form of a written opinion stating its reasons for the decision. The opinion will discuss the relevant facts, and apply the law to those facts. Appellate court opinions are usually published, thus forming a body of law, known as precedent, that attorneys and judges can consult for guidance in resolving similar legal questions.


Cohen, Jonathan Matthew. 2002. Inside Appellate Courts: The Impact of Court Organization on Judicial Decision Making in the United States Courts of Appeals. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Klein, David E. 2002. Making Law in the United States Courts of Appeals. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Air weapon to Approximation of laws