How is the appeal process and how does it work? What is an appellant?

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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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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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An appeal takes place when an appellant resorts to a superior (appellate) court to review the decision of an inferior (trial) court or administrative agency. A complaint to a higher court of an error or injustice committed by a lower court may correct or reverse that error or injustice. An appellant is the party who takes an appeal from one court jurisdiction to another.

What takes place when an appellant begins the appeal process?

On appeal, no new evidence is introduced. The higher court is limited to considering whether the lower court erred on a question of law or gave a decision plainly contrary to the evidence presented during trial. Common legal errors that may be grounds for appeal include the following:

  • If an appellant’s constitutional rights were violated while evidence was being obtained, and that evidence was allowed during the trial process, this is considered inadmissible evidence. Allowing inadmissible evidence in a trial is a legal error and grounds for appeal.
  • A lack of convincing evidence to support a guilty verdict.
  • Mistakes made in the judge’s instructions to the jury before or during a trial.

There are two stages of an appeal in the federal and many state court systems. These stages include appeal from trial court to intermediate appellate court, and then from intermediate appellate court to Supreme Court. Unless special permission is granted by the higher court to hear an interlocutory (provisional) appeal, an appeal cannot be made until the lower court renders final judgment.

Are appeal cases usually successful for the appellant?

The appeal process can be arduous, costly, and painfully slow. The process does not involve retrying a case or rehearing evidence. The attorneys on either side will file briefs that explain and respond to legal errors that may have taken place during the trial. This process takes place mostly in writing, and may continue for months or even years before the appeal is resolved. Roughly 74 percent of federal appeal cases across the U.S. were settled on briefs in 2007. Reversal rates for all appeals from 1998-2002 averaged 9.54 percent. 

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