A trial isn’t always the end of the case. One or both parties may want to appeal part or all of the trial verdict. In addition, they may want to appeal certain aspects of the lower court’s proceedings that they believe may have led the jury or the court to make the wrong decision. The process of asking a higher court to review a decision made by a lower court or an administrative agency is called an appeal. Attorneys who help clients pursue or defend an appeal are called appellate attorneys.
The review process
The appeals court reviews the lower court’s decision to see if they made a mistake. The appeals court doesn’t hold a new trial or accept new evidence. Instead, they look at the record from the lower court. Reviewing the record may involve reading a transcript, looking at pieces of evidence and reviewing the arguments of the parties. In addition, the higher court may hear oral arguments where they have the chance to ask questions of the attorneys arguing the case.
Sometimes, the issues for appeal are obvious. Other times, an attorney needs to know how to spot the issues and evaluate their merits. A skilled appellate law attorney must know how to identify issues that may allow for appeal. When an appeals lawyer advocates for the client bringing the appeal, they prepare the appeal and compile the necessary supporting documents. When they work for the responding party, they prepare and file the necessary response.
Not all appellate work starts in a lower court. A lot of hearings and decisions from both state and federal agencies happen in administrative hearings. For example, if you’re contesting a denial of unemployment benefits, you likely start in front of an administrative hearing officer. The same is true for a hearing on eligibility for food stamp benefits or a hearing challenging a license suspension from your state’s department of motor vehicles.
In most cases, if you don’t like the decision of the hearing officer, you have the right to bring an action in a court to review the decision. Sometimes, the judicial branch conducts a completely new trial with evidence. In other cases, they review the administrative record. Both of these types of hearings fall under appellate law.
The purpose of higher courts
Appellate courts exist for several reasons. First, lawmakers want citizens to have uniform justice throughout a state or throughout the country. They don’t want any individual judge to act as a king. Having an appeals process gives a litigant somewhere to go when the lower court doesn’t make the correct decision. The appeals process gives the trial judges a reason to follow the laws. Judges aren’t allowed to simply make up whatever law they feel is fair at the time.
In addition, judges sometimes make honest mistakes. The higher courts can step in and correct these errors. The opportunity to correct errors gives litigants access to justice and a more fair and uniform rule of law.
Finally, higher courts exist to interpret laws in ways that impact society as a whole. When a court’s ruling might be one that’s significant to a large segment of the population or it’s a very important issue for even a few people, the higher courts may want to step in and set policy. Then, the lower courts can take the policy and apply it accordingly in future decisions.
Why practice appellate law?
Although it may not seem like it at first glance, appellate law is exciting. Cases that go to appeal tend to be significant. They might involve an interesting legal nuance, the clear bias of the trial court or an issue that hasn’t yet been decided by the state or federal court. Appeals attorneys have the opportunity to create law. They have the opportunity to be a part of history. You may even get to meet the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Appellate attorneys are powerful
Notable appeals cases have the potential to impact the law in their state or even in the entire country. While politicians often accuse the courts of legislating from the bench, judges have the important job of determining the constitutionality of new laws. They also have to interpret the law when there’s a nuance or a question in the facts of a case that isn’t immediately answered in the law as it’s written.
These decisions can have an immediate and lasting impact in society. Historians and politicians often study the decisions for years to come. For attorneys who want to leave their mark on the world, an appellate practice is a great place to make a difference.
Appellate law is for writers and rhetoricians
For attorneys who pride themselves in carefully honing their craft, an appellate practice may be a good fit. Appellate law allows and requires preparation. An appellate attorney may spend weeks or months writing a brief or crafting the perfect oral argument. They might prepare mock arguments, an appellate notebook or anything else that might be helpful for their oral argument day.
Having time to prepare and perfect before the big day arrives is much different than a trial practice. In a trial practice, a client might need legal documents prepared and filed in a matter of minutes. During a trial, your client may need you to jump up and make an objection. It’s a game of strategy, and there often isn’t time to worry about the details.
Trial attorneys have to think on their feet. They have to know the basic rules and where to find them quickly. On the other hand, appeals attorneys have the time to fuss over every last detail. If you’re the type of attorney who prefers the satisfaction of pursuing a perfect legal brief or argument to the excitement of thinking on your feet, appellate law is something that you should consider.
For private clients
An appeals attorney might work on behalf of a plaintiff or defendant in a civil matter. They might also work for the prosecution or district attorney in a criminal matter. On the other hand, an appellate attorney might help a criminal defendant pursue an appeal. Whether an attorney works for the person pursuing the appeal or the person who defends against it, any practice that goes about helping a party undo a lower court decision is appellate practice.
For the courts
Appellate law isn’t always just on behalf of plaintiffs and defendants. Appeals courts and the highest courts need lawyers too. Appeals judges have clerks and other professionals that perform research and make recommendations to the judges. They streamline the process and help with administration of the courts. Working for a higher court typically involves reading submitted legal documents, creating summaries, performing research and making recommendations for judges.
Appellate law is for accuracy and precision
The appeals process exists to make sure that justice happens in a fair and uniform manner. Appellate lawyers work on behalf of their clients and the courts in order to correct errors or identify areas where laws need interpretation. Appellate lawyers enjoy precise and complex work that involves both carefully drafted legal documents and well-rehearsed oral arguments.