What Is the Court of Appeals? - Definition, Jurisdiction & Decisions

What Is the Court of Appeals? - Definition, Jurisdiction & Decisions
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  • 0:04 Federalism and the U.S. Courts
  • 1:07 The Lower Courts
  • 2:25 The Court of Appeals
  • 5:54 Judges & Jurisdiction
  • 8:02 Decisions
  • 9:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

This lesson discusses both the courts of appeals at the state level and the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals. You will learn what a court of appeals is, how various courts are structured, what they govern, and how they make decisions.

Federalism and the U.S. Courts

In the United States, we have separate courts that are organized and operated by each state as well as the federal government. Each state sets its own laws; each state has its own process of enforcing when those laws are broken. The federal, or national, government also has its own laws and process of enforcing those laws. We call the separation of authority between states and the federal government federalism.

There are many types of laws which exist at the state and federal level. Crimes and civil infractions are the two primary types of issues which courts address. You can be found guilty of a crime or held liable for civil charges in any state or, if it breaks federal law, by the national government. The process by which cases are heard is very similar across all states and the federal government. In this lesson, we will describe the federal court system. Whenever the state courts operate differently, you will see a note explaining how one or more of the states are unlike the federal government.

The Lower Courts

At the lowest level, criminal and civil cases are introduced in the trial court. The trial court hears evidence, interviews witnesses, and allows each side to present its case. In a criminal case, the government is represented by the prosecution. The prosecution attempts to prove a law was broken by the defendant. Civil cases are brought by a plaintiff, a person, or group who is harmed by another person or group, also called the defendant. All criminal cases, and most civil cases, are heard in a court that is overseen by a judge and decided by a jury. Court cases depicted on television shows and in movies usually take place in trial courts. Let's review the order in which cases are heard, so that the role of the Court of Appeals can be understood in context.

Cases involving either criminal or civil laws of a state are heard in the following order:

  1. State trial court
  2. State intermediate court of appeals
  3. State supreme court
  4. Federal supreme court

Cases involving federal criminal or civil law are heard in the following order:

  1. Federal district court
  2. Federal court of appeals
  3. Federal Supreme Court

The Court of Appeals

If the defendant in a criminal case, or either party in a civil case, is dissatisfied with the verdict of the trial court, he or she can ask for an appeal. An appeal is a petition for the case to be heard by a new court. A person found guilty of a crime is entitled to one automatic appeal of his or her case, with a lawyer provided to represent him or her if necessary. The prosecution cannot ask for an appeal if the person is found innocent in the trial court. If either the plaintiff or defense is unhappy with the judgment of a civil case, she or he does not have the right to an automatic appeal, but can ask for the court of appeals to hear the case. The court of appeals may or may not grant a hearing.

A court of appeals is an intermediate level of court, between trial courts and the Supreme Court, which hears these cases on appeal from a lower court. Each state has its own court of appeals for cases involving state law. Some separate civil appeals from criminal appeals. There is also a Court of Appeals for the federal court system.

A court of appeals looks different than a trial court. On appeal, only the attorneys present the facts of the case. No new evidence is introduced, and witnesses are not called and questioned. There is also no jury. Instead, a court of appeals is made up of a panel of several judges who review the case and make a judgment about whether or not the law was applied fairly at the trial court level. For example, a defendant may say that he was denied the right to speak to an attorney, and so his confession to the police should not have been admitted as part of the trial court proceedings.

Appeals of trial court cases are made first to the lower courts of appeals. As mentioned, each state gets to set up its own court system. Generally, states have separate trial courts for civil cases and criminal cases, with specialized judges for each who are familiar with certain areas of the law. Some states have also separated their appeals courts. This means that civil and criminal cases will be appealed to different courts of appeals and possibly, such as the case in Texas, to separate highest courts in the state.

An appeals decision can reverse the decision of the lower court, which may mean that a person found guilty of a crime is released from prison or that a monetary judgment is reassessed. Or the court of appeals can uphold the lower decision, which means that the trial court decision remains the final judgment of the court. If a person convicted of a crime has his or her punishment upheld, there is the option to appeal to the state supreme court or federal Supreme Court to hear the case on appeal. Here again, the prosecution cannot ask for an appeal. Either side in a civil case may ask for an appeal to the state or federal Supreme Court. Decisions of the state supreme court can also be appealed to the federal Supreme Court, which has final binding authority.

Supreme courts, also called courts of last resort, have the authority to choose which cases to hear, and generally pick a very small number in a given year to review. The lower courts of appeals are really important because, as Carp, Stidham, and Manning point out, 'In its 2010 term, the Supreme Court handed down decisions with full opinions in only eighty-three cases. This means that the courts of appeals are the courts of last resort for most appeals in the federal court system.' Decisions of the federal Supreme Court can overturn laws passed by Congress, which means that this highest court is ultimately a lawmaking body in its own right.

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