Appellate Courts and Cases – Journalist’s Guide
Most federal court decisions, and some state court rulings, can be challenged. The U.S. courts of appeals usually have the last word.
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The nation’s 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. These courts hear appeals from the district courts located within their circuits, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies and some original proceedings filed directly with the courts of appeals.
The vast majority of courts of appeals decisions are final, and they are binding on lower courts within the same circuit.
In addition, federal appellate courts hear cases that originated in state courts when they involve claims that a state or local law or action violates rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. One important category is habeas corpus cases, which allege improper incarceration, and form the basis of federal appeals of death penalties imposed by state courts.
Federal courts of appeals routinely handle more than 50,000 cases each year. Ten percent or fewer of those decisions are appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn hears oral arguments in fewer than 100 cases annually. Thus, the vast majority of courts of appeals decisions are final, and they are binding on lower courts within the same circuit.
A 13th appellate panel, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, is a unique court. It is based in Washington, D.C., and has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases. The court hears appeals from the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It exclusively hears certain types of cases appealed from the district courts, primarily those involving patent laws.
From a journalist’s perspective, there are similarities between courts of appeals and district courts. For instance, both have clerks of court, whose staff manages the flow of cases through the court, maintains court records, and handles other administrative duties.
However, there are notable differences. Each circuit has a circuit executive who works closely with the chief judge to coordinate a wide range of administrative matters.
An important inquiry early in any journalist’s dealings with a federal court of appeals is to identify the person or persons within the court authorized to talk to the news media. Most courts of appeals do not have a public information officer, but most have designated a specific person to interact with the media. That can be the circuit executive, clerk of court, or some other staff member.
Oral arguments are open to the public. For information about digital recordings of oral arguments, audio or video, consult the court of appeals website.
Decisions, opinions, orders, and court calendars are available on courts of appeals websites, and also via PACER. Free, text-searchable opinions are available at FDsys.
The losing party usually has the right to appeal a federal trial court decision to a court of appeals. Similarly, decisions made by most federal administrative agencies are subject to review by a court of appeals. Parties who contest decisions made in certain federal agencies – for example, disputes over Social Security benefits – may be required to seek review first in a district court rather than go directly to an appeals court.
The losing party usually has the right to appeal a federal trial court decision to a court of appeals.
In a civil case, either side may appeal the judgment, whether it results from a jury verdict or bench trial. Parties that settle a civil case relinquish their right to appeal.
In a criminal case, the defendant may appeal a conviction based on a guilty verdict, but the government may not appeal if a defendant is found not guilty. Either side in a criminal case may appeal a sentence that is imposed after a guilty verdict by arguing that the sentence violates the law, reflects an incorrect application of the sentencing guidelines, or improperly departs from the sentencing guidelines. When defendants plead guilty, they generally give up their right to appeal, except for claims they may have relating to their sentencing.
If the dissatisfied party in a district court case plans an appeal, the first step usually is to file a notice of appeal in the district court, which informs the court of appeals and other parties.
A litigant who files an appeal of a district court decision is known as an appellant. The term petitioner is used for a litigant who files an appeal from an administrative agency or who appeals an original proceeding. The appellant (petitioner) bears the burden of showing that the trial court or administrative agency made a legal error that affected the district court’s decision.
The court of appeals makes its decision based solely on the trial court’s or agency’s case record. The court of appeals does not receive additional evidence or hear witnesses. The court of appeals may review the factual findings made by the trial court or agency, but generally may overturn a decision on factual grounds only if the findings were “clearly erroneous.”
Constitutional cases include some of the most contentious issues considered by the federal Judiciary.
U.S. appellate courts have jurisdiction over cases that allege violations of federal constitutional rights, regardless of whether the alleged violations involve federal, state, or local governments. Thus, appeals based on constitutional grounds permit federal court review of state and local laws, practices, and court rulings, not just direct appeals of federal cases.
Constitutional cases include some of the most contentious issues considered by the federal Judiciary – freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, search and seizure, right to counsel, and equal protection under the law, just to name a few. On certain hot-button issues, such appeals are likely to attract broad media interest.
Federal appellate courts also hear habeas corpus appeals involving death penalties issued by state courts, as well as by federal courts.
The substantive and procedural requirements for seeking federal habeas relief are largely governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and federal court decisions interpreting the AEDPA. Despite significant legal barriers to obtaining federal habeas review under the AEDPA, prisoners sentenced to death at the state and federal levels almost always seek federal habeas corpus relief.
In these proceedings, a state prisoner (under 28 U.S.C. § 2254) or a federal prisoner (under 28 U.S.C. § 2255) asks a federal court to vacate or set aside his or her death sentence, alleging errors under the law.
Appeals normally are decided by randomly assigned three-judge panels. The creation and scheduling of panels, and the assignment of specific cases to those panels, is handled by either the clerk of court’s office or the circuit executive’s office. Regional court of appeals rules determine when the names of the judges on a panel are made public. Judges play no role in panel assignments.
The appealing party, called the appellant, presents legal arguments to the panel in a written brief, seeking to convince the judges that the trial court or administrative agency committed substantial error and that the trial court’s decision should therefore be reversed. The party who prevailed in the trial court, known as the appellee (or respondent for administrative agency appeals), argues in a reply brief that the trial court was correct or that any error made was not significant enough to affect the outcome.
More than 80 percent of federal appeals are decided solely on the basis of written briefs. Less than a quarter of all appeals are decided following oral argument, in which both sides discuss the legal principles in the dispute. Each side is given a specified amount of time, which varies by circuit, to present its case. Judges may interrupt to ask questions. These arguments are open to the public.
Sometime after the submission of briefs or after oral argument, the appellate panel will issue a decision, usually accompanied by an opinion explaining its rationale. A decision may be reached by a 3-0 or 2-1 vote. A decision will take into account and apply any relevant precedents – similar cases already decided by that court or by the Supreme Court. Written opinions are posted on a court’s internet site.
The panel’s decision concludes a case unless one of these actions happens:
- The judges send the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings (that is, remand the case)
- The court determines on its own that the matter should be reheard because of a potential conflict with a prior decision
- A party seeks a rehearing before the appellate panel
- A party seeks review before the full appeals court (called an en banc session)
- A party seeks review in the Supreme Court