The Federal Court Appeal Process: An Overview

The Federal Court Appeal Process: An Overview

The federal court appeal process is an important part of the legal system. It allows individuals and organizations to challenge decisions made by lower courts or administrative agencies. This process can be complex and time-consuming, but it can also be a powerful tool for those seeking justice.

What Is the Federal Court Appeals Process and How Does It Work?

When a District Court hands down a final verdict, it can be appealed to the Circuit Courts of Appeal as a right on the grounds that something wrongful occurred at the trial court level. 

In the appellate process in federal court, there are no juries, witnesses, documents, or other presentations of evidence. Instead, the federal Circuit Court hearing your appeal will limit its review nearly entirely to the record formed by the District Court.

Federal defendants who want to access the federal appeal process must move quickly after the final verdict is entered, or they can forfeit their appeal rights. Under the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, your Notice of Appeal must be received by the District Court that heard your case or imposed the sentence within 14 days. This relatively simple filing initiates the appeals process.

After receiving the Notice of Appeal, the trial court will prepare and forward your case record to the appropriate appeals court for their appellate review. Once the court gets the record, your appellate attorney typically only has 40 days to submit the appellate brief that will become the cornerstone of your case.

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Researching and writing the appeals brief — as well as any answers to the prosecutor’s written submissions — is critical to the appellate lawyer’s practice. In many cases, these appellate briefs hone in on minimal points of law that the entire case hinges on. After both sides of the case have been presented, the judges will consider the arguments and issue an appeals decision or ruling.

If the Circuit Court finds in your favor and overturns the United States District Court, it may completely dismiss your conviction, remand the case back to the District Court with instructions on how to proceed, or order a new trial.

Understanding the Different Levels of Appeal in the Federal Court System

There are 94 United States District Courts throughout the United States and 13 United States Circuit Courts of Appeal. Sitting above these is the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court.

If the Circuit Court of Appeal rules against you and affirms the District Court’s decision, you have the constitutional right to attempt to take your case to the United States Supreme Court, the last and highest level of appeal in the federal court appeal process.

However, filing for a writ of certiorari to get your case heard by the Supreme Court is time-consuming, highly involved, and highly technical. With an incredible volume of litigations and limited time and resources, the Supreme Court may accept or reject any appeal it receives. However, appealing to the Supreme Court can be worth it if the stakes are high enough — particularly if your case presents unique legal questions that have not adequately been resolved — as these can increase the chances that the Supreme Court takes your case.

federal appeal process

Common Grounds for an Appeal 

To persuade the appellate courts to look further at your case, it’s important to show the judges that something went wrong at the trial court level. A few of the most common grounds for an appeal in federal appellate procedure:

  • The jury’s verdict went against the weight of the evidence
  • The trial court made an evidentiary ruling which was unfairly prejudicial to your case
  • Your civil rights were violated
  • Your sentence was disproportionate to your conviction
  • You had insufficient legal counsel
  • There was an unsettled point of law that determined the case

The Appeals Process in Federal Court

In any United States Court of Appeals, it is very important for the federal appellate lawyer to be thoroughly familiar with that court’s local practices and the federal rules of appellate procedure that more generally apply. For example, courts of appeal vary in how the record is prepared and what other filings are required for inclusion with an appeal brief.

The Court of Appeals sets the briefing schedule. The appellant first files its brief, and the government responds with its brief after that. The appellant may also file a reply brief. Once the case is fully briefed, the Court of Appeals will decide whether to grant oral argument. The Court of Appeals will notify the appellant that the case has been designated for oral argument. If oral argument is granted, the appellant’s lawyer will argue the brief before a three-judge panel.

If the Circuit Court of Appeals denies relief, an appellant has 14 days to file a petition for rehearing. In a petition for rehearing, the appellant argues that the panel’s opinion was based on an error in law or facts.

If your petition for rehearing is unsuccessful, then your next step would be to file a petition for writ of certiorari in the United States Supreme Court. An appellant has 90 days to do that from the date the appellate court enters judgment. This is the last stop in appellate procedure, and it is up to the United States Supreme Court’s discretion whether to grant certiorari to the case. If certiorari is granted, the United States Supreme Court will hear the case, and render an opinion, almost always in writing.

Contact the Law Offices of Seth Kretzer for Help with a Federal Appeal

At the Law Offices of Seth Kretzer, our attorneys are highly skilled and experienced with the federal court appeals process and can answer your questions and help you with your legal needs. Contact our firm today.

Phone: 713-775-3050
Fax: 713-929-2019
Houston, TX 77002
440 Louisiana, Suite 1440