How do you appeal in federal court?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The first step in appealing a federal district court decision is filing a notice of appeal with the clerk of the district court. Strict deadlines apply to the filing of the notice of appeal – usually 30 days for civil cases and just 10 for federal criminal cases. For some cases in which the federal government is a party, the deadline may be as much as 45 days, but make sure to check this requirement closely. The clock starts running on the day that the district court judge enters the final judgment in the district court trial. The notice of appeal is not simply a formality – its purpose is to put all parties as well as the court system on notice that the decision is being appealed. A successfully filed notice of appeal should place the district court decision on hold pending the action of the court of appeals that has jurisdiction over the district court where the trial was held.

One of the biggest mistakes made by parties appealing a district court decision – and one that is likely to get the appeal thrown out entirely – is a failure to provide a proof of service of the notice of appeal to the opposing side. In most cases now this can be done electronically, as parties will receive a copy of all filings through the court’s electronic system the moment they have been filed. Nonetheless, the need for attention to details such as these illustrates why having an experienced appeals attorney on your side is imperative for the complex federal appeals process. Once the clerk of the district court approves the notice of appeal, seeing that all documents have been properly filed, he or she will forward the notice on to the clerk for the court of appeals, who will issue a docketing notice setting dates for briefing deadlines or hearings for the appeal.

A Handful of Cases May Follow Special Procedures on Appeal

In general, an ordinary district court case, whether civil or criminal, will be appealed up to the Circuit Court of Appeals with jurisdiction over the district court where the case was tried. There are 12 regional Circuit Courts of Appeal in the United States, each with jurisdiction over a group of states. Some specialized cases, though, will follow different paths to the appeals courts. For instance, any case involving patent laws or which was decided in the Court of Federal Claims (claims made against the government) or Court of International Trade will be appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in Washington, D.C.

Other cases, such as Social Security claims, have their own appeals procedures involving an appeals council. The same goes for military and maritime cases, which begin in their own designated courts but may end up later on in the federal appeals system. The bottom line is that appellants (the term for the party who is appealing the case to the federal appeals system) must pay strict attention to the rules and procedures of the district court as well as the designated appeals court. Failure to follow the basic rules of the appeals system can mean an appeal will be dismissed before it even has a chance of being heard. Regardless of the result at the district court level, if you are anticipating an appeal of your case, contact an experienced appeals lawyer today for guidance and expertise.

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