Who can appeal in federal court? And when?

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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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A basic tenet of the American legal system is that a losing party is always entitled to appeal the final decision of a federal district court. But from here it gets more complicated. First, simply because a party has a right to appeal a final decision does not mean that the appeal will actually be heard. In fact, most appeals that are filed never make it far enough to be heard by an appeals court. Also, some individuals who were not actual parties to the lawsuit may be eligible to file an appeal if they can show that they were harmed by the district court’s decision. Finally, timing is of the essence. Generally, parties cannot appeal prior to the district court’s entering of the final judgment, yet in most instances the appeal must be filed within 30 days after that final judgment has been entered. As a result, parties wishing to appeal must be on their toes, prepared to file an appeal quickly if necessary.

Regardless of whether or not they are represented by an attorney for the appeal, a losing party has the right to file an appeal. Losing parties not represented, known as pro se appellants, can argue their own case on appeal and may be excused from some of the standard filing requirements for appeals, mainly those relating to appearances and docketing. However, appealing a decision is a complicated process, extremely difficult to win, so going pro se is not advisable unless no lawyer will take your case.

Standing Is Required for the Appeal to Go Forward

Depending on the context of the federal district court decision, some individuals may be allowed to appeal even if they were not parties to the case – if they can show that they have what is known as “standing” to appeal. Having standing to appeal derives from being able to show that you have suffered sufficient harm as a result of the decision. A famous example of this issue of standing to appeal is seen in the ongoing appeal of the district court decision ruling California’s same-sex marriage ban (Prop 8) to be unconstitutional. The proponents of Prop 8 filed an appeal, but immediately had to show that they suffered sufficient harm by the law being overturned (since they were not parties to the original case). A decision on this issue of standing to appeal is still pending, but if the courts decide that the Prop 8 proponents have no standing, the appeal will be thrown out, an illustration of the significant role that standing plays.

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In Most Cases, Appeals Must Be Filed After Final Judgment

Although in some rare cases parties can appeal before a final decision of the district court, in most instances the appeal must come within 30 days after the district court judge has entered the final judgment in the case. Some exceptions to this rule deal with what are known as “interlocutory” appeals. Interlocutory appeals can occur in the midst of a district court case if one critical legal issue exists, the determination of which is necessary for the trial to be conducted properly, or which would otherwise take months to present at trial. An interlocutory appeal can go forward only after the district court judge “certifies” that a decision on a particular issue by the Court of Appeals could expedite the case, and a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals agrees to hear the appeal before a final judgment is rendered by the district court. Other aspects of a district court case that might be appealable before a final judgment is entered are injunctions (orders by the district court to do or to stop doing something), and contempt orders.

Outside of these narrow exceptions, the 30-day deadline for appealing the final judgment of a district court applies for all federal court appeals. A federal appeals court may decide to “abstain” from hearing an appeal, instead passing it off to a state appeals court because of the case’s particular concern to state law or because the state court is better suited to decide a certain legal issue in the case. If the federal court abstains from hearing the appeal, the appellant may have an extended deadline to file an appeal in the state court “within a reasonable time,” which is usually determined on a case-by-case basis.

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