Chapter 4

JurisdictionUnited States
Chapter 4 Appellate Courts

Appellate courts are very different from trial courts. Their purpose is to allow a party that has been through a trial and lost to argue that it lost because the trial court committed an error.

There are many differences between trial courts and appellate courts:

• Appellate courts usually sit in panels of three judges, chosen from a group of judges who only hear appeals.
• Appellate courts do not use juries. They accept the facts as found by the jury in the trial court and generally focus on errors of law the trial judge may have committed.
• For the same reason, appellate courts do not take testimony from witnesses.
• Their courtroom proceedings are usually short. A case may be heard in as little as an hour.
• Their decisions are always issued as written "opinions," essays that explain the law as it applies to that case.

It is always true in America that the losing party has a right to appeal from a ruling of a trial court. That appeal may have some restrictions as to what arguments can be raised and when they can be raised, but the losing party always has a second chance.

In our discussion of appellate courts, we will be focused on federal appellate courts, not state appellate courts. The differences between the two systems are not huge, but the federal system is the same throughout the country while the state systems vary quite a bit. Focusing on the federal structure will keep the discussion relatively simple.

But it is important to understand that more than 90 percent of all civil lawsuits and criminal cases are settled by some agreement between the parties. In those cases, there is no appeal. So the number of cases brought to appellate courts is much smaller than the number of cases started in trial courts.

Even beyond that, only about 13 percent of appeals end up leading to a change of outcome. So, if 90 percent of all cases ever filed get settled and permit no appeal and if, of the 10 percent that can be appealed, only 13 percent result in a different outcome, the chance that an appeal will result in a different outcome for any of the cases originally filed is only 1.3 percent.

This is not to say that appeals are not important. They are. That is so because appeals courts have two roles: they correct errors of the trial courts, and they write opinions that elaborate on, refine, or even change the law. Appeals courts have a law-making function that is vital to refreshing and clarifying the law.

Now, some will say, "Judges...

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