Appellate Jurisdiction in the US Court System

The Right to Appeal Must Be Proven in Every Case

Sculpture of the Scales of Justice
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The term “appellate jurisdiction” refers to the authority of a court to hear appeals to cases decided by lower courts. Courts that have such authority are called “appellate courts.” The appellate courts have the power to reverse or modify the lower court’s decision.

Key Takeaways: Appellate Jurisdiction

  • Appellate jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear and decide appeals to decisions made by lower courts.
  • In the United States federal court system, cases originally decided in the district courts can be appealed only to the circuit courts of appeals, while decisions of the circuit courts can be appealed only to the U.S. Supreme Court. Decisions of the Supreme Court cannot be further appealed.
  • The right to appeal is not guaranteed by the Constitution. Instead, the appellant must “show cause” by convincing the appeals court that the trial court had failed to properly apply the laws involved or to follow proper legal procedures.
  • The standards by which an appeals court decides the correctness of a lower court’s decision is based on whether the appeal was based on a question of substantive facts of the case or on an incorrect or improper application of the legal process resulting in the denial of due process of law

While the right to appeal is not bestowed by any law or the Constitution, it is generally considered to be embodied in general tenets of law prescribed by the English Magna Carta of 1215.

In the Judiciary Act of 1891, commonly known as the Evarts Act, Congress established nine courts of appeals, one for each judicial circuit at the time. The Act created another judge position for each circuit, identified in the legislation as the circuit justice.  Appeals from trial court decisions were heard by three-judge panels made up of the circuit justice, a court of appeals judge, and a district court judge. The Act recognized nine circuits. Today 12 circuits hear appeals.

As the first federal courts designed exclusively to hear cases on appeal from the trial courts, the courts of appeals as created in 1891 was an effort to relieve the Supreme Court’s overwhelming caseload by dealing with the dramatic increase in federal appeals filings.

The Judiciary Act of 1891 gave the U.S. Courts of Appeals jurisdiction over the great majority of appeals from trial court decisions. The Act sharply limited the categories of cases that routinely could be appealed to the Supreme Court. The Judiciary Act of 1925 and later statutes continued that trend while expanding the jurisdiction of the U.S. Courts of Appeals. By the 1930s, the appellate courts’ jurisdiction included administrative appeals of decisions made by federal regulatory agencies.

Standards by Which Appeals Are Judged

The standards by which a court of appeals judges the validity of a lower court’s decision depends on whether the appeal was based on a question of facts presented during the trial or on an incorrect application or interpretation of a law by the lower court.

Sufficiency of the Evidence

The appellate court must determine if the evidence presented in the lower court trial supports the weight of the verdict. “Sufficient evidence” review asks whether an average person could accept the available evidence as adequate to support the decision. The appellate court does not reweigh the evidence presented or attempt to judge the credibility of witnesses; instead, it accepts the trial court's findings and affirms if the sum of those findings meets the necessary threshold.

Abuse of discretion

5Here, the higher court is reviewing the decisions of the trial court judge during the case to determine if they acted unreasonably or arbitrarily. Many types of trial court decisions are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard, including the trial judge's decision to award or deny attorney fees in a case.

Plain Error

As the name implies, plain error means the trial court had acted in a way that, on its face, was in error. The appeals court will review errors that were not objected to at trial but only if these errors were unjust or unfair. This review is usually applied in exceptional circumstances when one party has been extremely harmed by an obvious error. It will not be applied, though, when there is a significant weight of evidence supporting the judgment.

Harmless Error

A harmless error is one that does not change the outcome of the case. If it is harmless, the higher court will affirm the lower court's judgment.

Clearly Erroneous

This standard is used when the appealing party disputes the trial court's findings of fact. Because the trial court is in a special position to judge the credibility of witnesses who appear before it when it makes its findings, the appellate court gives "special deference" to those findings and, unless they are obviously mistaken or wrong, those findings will not be overturned.

De novo

"De novo" is a Latin term meaning “anew” or “beginning again.” In the de novo standard of review, the appellate court considers the decision of a lower court as if the lower court had not rendered a verdict. The appellate court views the case as if it were brought to the court for the first time. De novo judicial review is used in questions of how the law was applied or interpreted. It is a non-deferential standard of review, so it doesn't place any weight on previous court findings. A de novo judicial review can reverse the trial court’s decision.

At trials in the U.S. District Courts, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty—or in civil cases, who is liable or not liable. The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.

Under the federal hierarchical dual court system of the United States, the circuit courts have appellate jurisdiction over cases decided by the district courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over the decisions of the circuit courts.

The Constitution gives Congress the authority to create courts under the Supreme Court and to determine the number and location of courts with appellate jurisdiction.

Currently, the lower federal court system is made up of 12 geographically located regional circuit courts of appeal which have appellate jurisdiction over 94 district trial courts. The 12 appellate courts also have jurisdiction over specialized cases involving the federal government agencies, and cases dealing with patent law. In the 12 appellate courts, appeals are heard and decided by three-judge panels. Juries are not used in the appeals courts.

Typically, cases decided by the 94 district courts can be appealed to a circuit court of appeals and decisions for the circuit courts can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also has “original jurisdiction” to hear certain types of cases that may be allowed to bypass the often lengthy standard appellate process.

From about 25% to 33% of all appeals heard by federal appellate courts involve criminal convictions.

The Right to Appeal Must Be Proven

Unlike other legal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the right to appeal is not absolute. Instead, the party asking for the appeal called the “appellant,” must convince the appellate jurisdiction court that the lower court had incorrectly applied a law or failed to follow proper legal procedures during the trial. The process of proving such errors by the lower courts is called “showing cause.” The appellate jurisdiction courts will not consider an appeal unless cause has been shown. In other words, the right to appeal is not required as part of “due process of law.”

While always applied in practice, the requirement to show cause in order to gain the right to appeal was confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1894. In deciding the case of McKane v. Durston, the justices wrote, “An appeal from a judgment of conviction is not a matter of absolute right, independently of constitutional or statutory provisions allowing such appeal.” The court continued, “A review by an appellate court of the final judgment in a criminal case, however, grave the offense of which the accused is convicted, was not at common law and is not now a necessary element of due process of law. It is wholly within the discretion of the state to allow or not to allow such a review.”

The way in which appeals are dealt with, including determining whether or not the appellant has proven the right to appeal, can vary from state to state.

Standards by Which Appeals Are Judged

The standards by which a court of appeals judges the validity of a lower court’s decision depends on whether the appeal was based on a question of facts presented during the trial or on an incorrect application or interpretation of a law by the lower court.

In judging appeals based on facts presented at trial, the court of appeals judges must weigh the facts of the case based on their own firsthand review of the evidence and observation of witness testimony. Unless a clear error in the way the facts of the case were represented to or interpreted by the lower court can be found, the appeals court will generally deny the appeal and allow the decision of the lower court to stand.

When reviewing issues of law, the court of appeals may reverse or modify the lower court’s decision if the judges find the lower court wrongly applied or misinterpreted the law or laws involved in the case.

The court of appeals may also review “discretionary” decisions or rulings made by the lower court judge during the trial. For example, the appeals court might find that the trial judge improperly disallowed evidence that should have been seen by the jury or failed to grant a new trial due to circumstances that arose during the trial.

Sources and Further Reference

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Longley, Robert. "Appellate Jurisdiction in the US Court System." ThoughtCo, Nov. 1, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, November 1). Appellate Jurisdiction in the US Court System. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Appellate Jurisdiction in the US Court System." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).