The losing party in a lawsuit may appeal their case to a higher court. The higher court then reviews the case for legal errors. If an appeal is granted, the lower court's decision may be reversed in whole or in part. If an appeal is denied, the lower court's decision stands.
What Judgments May be Appealed?
Generally, only "final judgments" may be appealed. A final judgment disposes completely of the case, leaving no further issues for the court to decide. A judgment does not have to result from a jury verdict to qualify as a final judgment. Cases which are resolved through motions for summary judgment or motions to dismiss are also considered final judgments. A court may allow interlocutory appeals under some circumstances, such as the denial of a preliminary injunction. All losing parties in civil matters and all criminal defendants have a right to appeal a judge or jury's verdict against them.
Which Courts Hear Appeals?
The U.S. Supreme Court only hears cases involving a federal or constitutional issue.
State and federal appeals courts review the decisions of lower trial courts. If a party loses in an appeals court, they may appeal to the state supreme court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Review of appeals in these courts is discretionary and is limited to a small percentage of cases. While a single judge presides over a trial, an appeal is typically heard by a panel of three judges. State Supreme Courts generally have panels of more than five justices, while the U.S. Supreme Court seats a total of nine justices.
Federal appeals are governed by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, while state appellate courts are bound by their own individual rules of procedure. The basic framework of appeals, however, is generally the same in both state and federal court. In preparing for an appeal, each party must submit a written brief to the court. Appellate briefs frame the issues the court should consider, and make legal arguments to persuade the court to rule in their favor. In certain courts, the parties will also engage in oral argument. Oral argument gives the court an opportunity to ask questions to counsel and to clarify issues presented in the party's briefs.
No witness testimony is heard during an appeal and no new evidence is admitted, except under extremely limited circumstances. Thus, in order to understand the lower court's decision, the appeals court examines the record of the lower court's proceedings. The record includes all pleadings, pre-trial and post-trial motions, exhibits, and a word-for-word transcript of what occurred during trial.
Appellate Standards of Review
Typically, a court will review the lower court's record for legal errors. The standard of review used by the appellate court depends on whether the lower court's decision was made by a jury or a judge. An appeal of a jury verdict will succeed only if the appellate court makes a finding of "reversible error." A reversible error causes a result that would not have occurred had the court acted properly. An appeal after a bench trial, in which a judge made the decision, is reviewed for an "abuse of discretion." A lower court's decision will be reversed only if the lower court judge abused his discretion in reviewing the evidence. A judge generally abuses his discretion if he acts unreasonably.
De Novo Review
If the lower court resolved the case by granting a pre-trial motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment, the appeals court will review the case de novo. This means that the court gives no deference to the lower court’s decision.