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Function of Appellate Court

The appellate court’s job is to determine first whether the trial proceedings were conducted correctly and then, if it finds that error was committed, to decide whether the error was significant enough to have altered the outcome of the case.

Difference From Trial Court Proceedings

There are significant differences between trial court proceedings and the process of appellate review. Unlike trial, the purpose of an appeal is not to determine the case on its merits, but to review for trial court error. The courts of appeal do not supplant the trial courts as the original forum for consideration of the facts and evidence nor do the courts of appeal reweigh the evidence or reassess witness credibility. The appellate process is not for the purpose of trying a case from the ground up, but rather for the purpose of reviewing action taken in the trial court. In that regard, an appeal does not give losing litigants a second bite at the apple. In other words, the parties cannot retry the case on appeal, cannot testify in the appellate court, and cannot seek to persuade the appellate court that they told the truth while their successful opponents “lied.” Moreover, losing litigants cannot “win” on appeal simply by demonstrating trial court error. Appellate courts will reverse or modify only for prejudicial error.

Appellate Court Procedures

The drama of trial is absent on appeal. There is no witness testimony or jury. Whereas the spoken word has tremendous impact in trial proceedings, the appellate process is based primarily on written documents. The court of appeal reviews a written record of the trial court proceedings, examines written briefs, and issues a written opinion. The parties have the right to present oral argument on appeal but oral argument on appeal plays a far less significant role than at trial.

General Sequence of Events on Appeal

        Notice of Appeal. The first formal step is the timely filing of a notice of appeal, which invokes the jurisdiction of the court of appeal. Unless the notice is filed within a specified time period, the appeal cannot be entertained.

       Appellate Record Prepared. The next step is to prepare the appellate record, again within specified time periods. The record usually consists of the documents filed in the trial court and a transcript of the oral proceedings.

      Briefing. After the record is completed, the parties present their written arguments through written briefs; the briefs must also be filed within specified time periods. 

      Oral Argument. At some point after briefing, the parties are given the opportunity to make a short (maximum 30 minutes) oral presentation to the assigned panel of justices.

     Decision Filed. The court’s decision is usually filed within 90 days following the time set for oral argument.
Petitions for Rehearing and Review. Most appellate court decisions can be challenged by petition for rehearing in the court of appeal and further challenge can be pursued by a petition for review in the supreme court.

     Precedential Effect of Court Decision. An appeal that results in a published decision has precedential (binding) effect on lower courts under the doctrine of “stare decisis.” In contrast, a trial court judgment is binding only on the parties thereto. It provides no guidance to other courts and litigants.