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Appellate process is integral to the American judicial system and is a constitutionally protected right. Individual, or corporations for that matter, have the right to appeal a trial on the grounds that the decision was made erroneously or without proper attention paid to evidence or judicial procedure. Basically, the appellate process refers to the specific procedures and practices by which the appellate system in particular works. The appellate courts are generally referred to as "higher" courts, and the trial courts as "lower" courts primarily because of the directional process by which cases are brought to trial, heard, and then re-heard in an appellate case. State Appeals Courts, State Supreme Judicial Courts, and the Supreme Court of the United States are examples of appellate courts.
The appellate system works differently from the trial law system. Appellate courts never hear new evidence or new cases. Only trial courts accomplish the initial role of hearing evidence. Appellate courts accomplish a relatively simple goal of reviewing the decisions made by trial courts. The appellate courts check the decisions made by trial courts, and do so for several reasons. For one, appellate courts ensure that the law is being uniformly enforced across the jurisdiction and will review cases that seem erroneous. Second, appellate courts review the final judgment made in a trial court case so that either party in that initial trial has the opportunity to execute the constitutionally protected right to protest the ruling. It should be noted, however, that the state usually does not have the right to appeal a decision made in a lower court in criminal cases (Massachusetts Judicial Branch, 2014). In other words, the defendant in a criminal trial may appeal a guilty verdict but the state may not appeal a verdict of not guilty. The sentence a judge issues in a criminal trial, however, may be appealed by either party (United States Courts, 2014).
The appellate court is specifically seeking fairness and equity in the judicial process. To ensure fairness and equity, and to help organize and streamline the system, there are several different types and strata of appellate courts. At the federal level, for instance, there are appellate courts that specialize in bankruptcy cases. There are several elements to the appellate process, which may differ from state to state or from state to federal jurisdictions. However, there are many core elements in common between the different court systems.
The burden of proof is on the appellant to prove that the lower court made an erroneous decision, or that some type of legal or procedural error was committed during the trial. An appellant cannot simply decide that the outcome of their trial was unfavorable to them, and thereby file an appeal. That appeal would not be heard unless the person can prove that there was something wrong with the trial and that some kind of error in judgment or procedure was made. The appellant must have grounds for appeal, based on the merits of the case.
To make its decision, the appellate court will review all the official records compiled and filed during the trial. No additional or new evidence is permitted at this time. The sole role of the appellate court is to review the original trial on its merits, and determine whether the decision was valid or not. Appellate courts are looking specifically for errors in judgment, although upon review of the facts of the case, the appellate court does have the power to rule based on "clearly erroneous" evidence (United States Courts, 2014).
The first part of the appellate process is to file a brief. A brief is often longer than its name suggests, and can be up to 14,000 words (Mahacek, n.d.). The appellant and the appellee both submit briefs presenting their side of the argument. In the appellate process, the opponent in the trial is generally referred to as the Respondent. In the brief, the appellant in particular is responsible for outlining the purposes for the appeal, such as suspicion of an unfair trial, incorrect application of the law, unfair decisions, or violations of state or federal constitutional rights. The Respondent writes a brief that shows why the original decision was made judiciously, or why any presumed error in judgment would not have necessarily impacted the outcome of the trial. The appellant is often permitted to write a reply brief to address the arguments made by the respondent, in order to present a final argument to the court of appeals.
A few appeal judgments are made on the basis of the written briefs alone, if the justices feel there is sufficient evidence presented in the written briefs to either summarily uphold or overturn the initial trial court judgment. Usually, though, the next step of the appellate process is the presentation of oral arguments. Both sides present a brief (about fifteen minute) oral argument directly to the justices of the appellate court. The oral arguments are not one-sided. During the oral arguments, the justices exercise their option of asking questions and engaging the attorneys to clarify core components of the trial. This is the heart of the appellate process, as the attorneys from both the appellate and respondent sides converse with the justices about the trial. The justices are looking for evidence that the original trial was either solid, or that the original trial had significant problems warranting review and possible reversal of judgment.
In some cases, a third party may submit an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief to offer additional opinion and potentially influence the decision made by the appellate court ("Appellate Procedure," n.d.). It seems as if an amicus curiae amounts to presentation of new evidence, but it is not. Instead, the amicus curiae brief is designed to show how the case is important in a broader context, to encourage the appellate courts to consider social or political issues it might not have otherwise. For example, if Sea World were to win a case in which it was accused of animal cruelty, the appellant from an animal rights group could appeal the case along with the written amicus curiae from a politician who believes the original ruling suggests the need for animal cruelty laws to be reviewed by the higher courts.
The third part of the appellate process is the judgment of the court. More often than not, the appellate court will affirm the trial court decision. According to the State of Massachusetts, about 80% of original trial court decisions are affirmed by the appellate court. In other words, the individual or party loses the appeal. About 15% of appellate decisions reverse the original trial decision, and the individual does win the appeal. The remainder of cases proves more ambiguous because the appellate courts are allowed to affirm some portions of the initial judgment but overturn others. Mahacek (n.d.) claims that the appellate courts always present the judgment in writing, as opposed to presenting it in person after hearing the oral argument. This is because the Court of Appeals is required to compile a written opinion with each justice's opinions, and why the decision was made. If the appellate court believes that the case needs to be heard again by a higher court, like the Supreme Court, then this will also be stated in the written opinions issued by the justices.
If either party disagrees with the appellate court decision, the case may only in some cases be brought to the next highest court in the system for further judicial review. Generally, the word of the appellate court is final. However, if there is some question regarding the constitutionality of the case, a higher court may be invoked by the appellant, the respondent, or the appellate court itself. The higher court to hear the case next will be the Supreme Court…[continue]
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