How are appeals courts different from trial courts?

How are appeals courts different from trial courts?

On Behalf of | Sep 12, 2023 | blog, Criminal Defense

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the justice heard 60 cases in the 2022-2023 term. As the country’s highest appeals court, it does not hear every case that comes before it.

Appeals courts are quite different than trial courts in several specific and important ways.

Nature of cases

Trial courts, known as lower courts, are where legal disputes first emerge. These courts handle a wide array of cases, spanning criminal, civil and family matters. They conduct trials and establish facts, applying the law to reach a verdict.

Federal appeals courts do not engage in trial proceedings. They deal exclusively with appeals arising from lower courts. Appeals courts review decisions to ensure the correct application of the law and determine fairness.

Function and decision-making

Trial courts render the initial verdict in a case. Judges preside over cases and make decisions on the merits of the case and the facts presented.

Federal appeals courts do not decide cases on their merits. Their role is to assess whether there were any errors in the legal process or application of law during the trial. If they find errors, they may send the case back to the lower court for correction.

Procedure and presentation

In trial courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys present evidence. These courts often have heated arguments, examination of witnesses and presentations by opposing parties.

Federal appeals courts do not deal with live witnesses or new evidence. Instead, they review written legal briefs submitted by the parties involved and listen to oral arguments, if necessary. The focus here is on legal analysis and whether the lower court made legal errors.

Finality of decisions

Trial court decisions establish guilt or liability and impose sentences or judgments. However, either side can appeal these decisions.

The decisions rendered by federal appeals courts are typically final. Further appeals, if possible, would have to go to the Supreme Court of the United States, which could decide not to hear the case.

Role in precedent

Trial courts do not set legal precedents. Their decisions are specific to the cases at hand.

Federal appeals courts play a pivotal role in shaping legal precedent. Their rulings serve as authoritative interpretations of the law, guiding lower courts in their future decisions.

When considering an appeal of a federal criminal case, it is important to understand the roles and differences of the courts.