What is Appellate Law?
An appeal is a stage in the court process. A timeline of the litigation process follows:
- The Event: A bad thing happens:
-A person is fired from her or his job due to that person’s race or for “blowing the whistle” on illegal conduct of an employer.
-A police officer violates a person’s constitutional rights by searching that person’s home without a warrant or physically assaulting that person.
- Legal Counsel: The person injured (the plaintiff) hires a lawyer. (Alternatively, a person may attempt to navigate the process below without a lawyer.)
- Possible Settlement: The plaintiff’s lawyer contacts the other party (the defendant). Usually, the defendant has or will obtain a lawyer. At that point, the lawyers talk to their clients, then to each other, to determine whether the parties might be able to settle their differences without litigation (i.e. formal procedures in court).
- Litigation: If the parties cannot agree on a settlement, the plaintiff’s lawyer drafts a complaint and files that with a trial court. A complaint is a document that explains what the plaintiff believes happened and why the defendant is responsible. This begins formal litigation.
- Pre-trial: Many things occur prior to trial, in and out of court.The major new development is discovery. This is a formal period of time where both parties can obtain information from the other party. This includes: requesting specific documents from the other party; requiring the other party to answer questions in writing; or deposing people who were involved in the incident.A deposition involves both lawyers asking an individual questions in person. The clients can, and usually do, also attend—but the lawyers ask the individual deposed the questions. Everything that is said is recorded, word-for-word, by a professional who will then produce a transcript. This transcript is then available to either or both parties, for a fee, to be used for motions (as below) or at the trial.During this time, the parties may also continue to discuss a possible settlement or file various motions with the court to attempt to resolve the case early without needing a trial.As the trial date approaches, the court will require various documents and filings from both parties so the court can better organize and run the trial.
- Trial: Both sides present their case before a jury or a trial judge (depending on the type of trial). The jury or judge will determine who wins the trial and, if the plaintiff wins, how much money the defendant needs to pay to compensate the plaintiff for the defendant’s wrongdoing.
- Appeal: Sometimes one or both parties will believe that the judge or jury made a mistake. That party will file a Notice of Appeal. This tells the trial court that the case is not over, that at least one party wants to take the case to an appellate court. At that point, the case is not over.The lawyers for each party will write and file discussions on why the trial did or did not result in the right outcome. This appeal is not just a claim that one party should have won. The party appealing the outcome of the trial has to explain how the trial itself violated a rule or law in a way that made that party lose.Sometimes a party argues the trial judge misinterpreted the law. For instance, the trial judge might have told the jury what the law was incorrectly, thus leading them to the wrong conclusion. Alternatively, the trial judge may have allowed something during the trial that should not have been allowed because it violated trial rules—such as allowing evidence into the trial that was not relevant or unfairly prejudiced the jury against one side. There are many grounds available to appeal a trial’s outcome, based upon numerous different sources of law. (That does not mean, however, that there is always a legal basis to appeal—i.e. challenge—a trial’s outcome.)
- Appellate Decision: The appellate court, usually involving several judges on an appellate panel, will make a decision. That panel may uphold the trial’s outcome (i.e. the winner at trial is still the winner), reverse the outcome (i.e. the losing side is now the winner), or send the case back to the trial court for further proceedings (for instance, the appellate court may decide the trial was not done properly and the parties need to do it again).
- Second Appeal: In some circumstances, a party will lose the appeal but still be convinced the law is on that party’s side. The party can then ask a higher court (e.g. the Colorado Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court) to look at the case—a second appeal, arguing the appellate court (above) was wrong. The Supreme Court may agree to do so, in which case the appellate process above repeats for the Supreme Court. Usually, however, the Supreme Court does not agree to accept the appeal—and thus the person who won the first appeal wins. The Supreme Courts receive thousands of requests to review cases a year. Thus, those Courts can only review a fraction of those—based upon which are most important to the public and the law.