Federal Criminal Appeals

The federal appeals process is often a mystery to the general public. Inside the closed world of the Federal Appellate Courts, away from the eyes of both lawyers and the public, federal judges rule on complex legal matters. These courts keep sparse records, admit no new evidence, and maintain strict rules of decorum.  Their interpretation of the law becomes a standard which shapes the legal future of vast swathes of the United States. To draw back the curtains on this system, we’ve answered the most common questions people have about the federal appeals process.

A Federal Appeal Is Not A Retrial

A federal appeal often has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. This is the most common misconception people hold about appeals. The appellate judges usually won’t examine the evidence or the conclusion of a jury. The appeal normally won’t declare someone innocent. Once a trial is over, the facts of the case are set in stone.

At its core, an appeal is an academic debate on the interpretation of law. It serves as a legal attack on the procedures and judgment of the court. If it can be proven that the court violated a legal principle during the trial period, the final verdict will often be thrown out, or sent back to a lower court with orders to vacate the decision.

The Federal Appeals Process Is Not Fast

There is a 14-day window to file a notice of appeal after a federal court finds a defendant guilty. This is the only fast-moving part of the process.

Once the notice has been filed, the federal system moves slowly. It can take weeks to complete the paperwork needed to appear before the court, and court dates can be months apart.

Appeals lawyers must meticulously follow complicated procedural instructions when handling an appeal. Even things like the color of document bindings are specified, and many federal courts will dismiss an appeal over breaches of procedural error.

You Won’t Appear in Court

There’s a good chance your lawyer won’t have to appear either. The most important part of an appeal is the legal document known as a brief. The brief is approximately fifty pages of legal arguments and case-law supporting the claim that the trial court was wrong in their application of the law. Typically, three-quarters of federal appeals are settled on the briefs alone, with a panel of judges reading the arguments and making a ruling.

When Federal Judges request clarification of an argument raised by the brief, lawyers representing the appellant and the appellee will be called to make oral arguments. These “arguments” are actually timed question-and-answer sessions before a panel of federal judges. At no point in the process will the person appealing the decision be required to appear before the court.

Winning An Appeal is Not Always the End

In the Hollywood version of courtroom drama, winning an appeal means walking free. This can certainly happen, but many cases require a return to court before the matter is resolved. As mentioned before, an appeal isn’t about guilt or innocence, it’s about ensuring that you have received due process. The court ruling in your favor— indicating a mistake was made—doesn’t automatically wipe out the conviction from district court. The appellate court gives an order after ruling in your favor, and it can issue a reversal or remand the case to the lower court.

The reversal means your conviction is cleared, full stop. Remanding the case is still a positive outcome, but the process takes longer to resolve. Many successful appeals send the case back to district court with instructions on how to correct the error.

Civil rights errors—like illegally seizing evidence—sometimes trigger a reversal of the conviction. In the case of smaller legal mistakes like improperly instructing jurors, an appeal often triggers a retrial.