• The Basics The Structure of the Federal Court System: Differences Between Trial and Appellate Courts Background Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the federal judicial system. It says: The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. Pursuant to this provision, Congress has established two levels of federal courts under the Supreme Court: the district courts and the appellate courts. The United States is divided into 12 regional circuits. Each circuit is represented by a court of appeals for that circuit. These courts hear appeals from the district courts within its circuit. There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears appeals in specialized cases and has national jurisdiction. The court of appeals reviews the trial record from the district court and determines whether the district judge applied the law correctly. The appellate court does not redetermine the facts of the case or take additional evidence. Each circuit is divided into districts. There are 94 districts in the United States. Each district is represented by a district court. These courts are the federal trial courts. In a trial, witnesses testify and evidence is presented by the parties. A judge or jury decides the facts and applies the law to those facts. The vast majority of federal cases begin in the district court. How does a case get into the court? In general, courts cannot reach out to the public to decide controversies on their own initiative. They must wait for someone to bring the controversy to them. They only decide actual, legal controversies and do not give advisory opinions. There are two primary forms of controversy that are decided by the federal courts: (1) civil cases and (2) criminal cases. Civil cases usually involve disputes between persons or organizations involving claims that the other party (defendant) failed to carry out a legal duty to the person bringing the suit (plaintiff) or violated the rights of the plaintiff. For example, if the defendant did not honor a contract, the plaintiff could sue the defendant and ask for monetary damages for the amount of the contract. If the defendant discriminated against the plaintiff relating to a promotion at work, the plaintiff could sue for monetary compensation, including back wages, for employment discrimination. District Courts Civil cases are initiated in the district when the plaintiff files a written complaint with the court and pays the court costs for opening the case. A complaint is a written statement by the person starting the civil case that states the wrongs allegedly committed by the defendant. The complaint usually asks for money damages or asks the court to order the defendant to stop committing the alleged wrong. A copy of the complaint is served (delivered) on the defendant, usually by a process server or the U.S. Marshal. The defendant is not arrested or taken into custody. A criminal case involves allegations by the government that someone (defendant) committed a crime for which they should be fined and/or imprisoned. A criminal case usually begins when the U.S. attorney (the attorney for the government) presents evidence to a federal grand jury that indicates a crime occurred. There are no court costs associated with opening a criminal case. The grand jury considers the evidence and decides whether there is enough evidence to convince them that a crime probably occurred and that the defendant probably committed it (probable cause). Sometimes, the defendant is already in custody when the grand jury issues the indictment. Sometimes, the U.S. Marshal must go out and arrest the defendant to get him or her before the court. Court of Appeals A case is brought to the Court of Appeals only after the case (civil or criminal) has been tried or decided in the district court. If a party loses at trial in the district court, that party can ask the court of appeals to review the trial record and see whether the district judge applied the law correctly. The court of appeals does not consider additional evidence or redetermine the facts of the case. If a party loses at the district court level, they ordinarily may file a Notice of Appeal. The notice is filed in the district court and informs the court and the other parties that the losing party is appealing the outcome of the case in the district court. Occasionally, a party must seek permission to pursue an appeal with the appellate court (for example, an appeal from an order of the district court prior to the final adjudication of the case in that court). The party files a Petition for Appeal, which notifies the court and the other parties that the losing party is seeking permission to appeal the district court result to the court of appeals. The petition includes a statement of the facts necessary to understand the legal question presented, the question itself, the reasons why the appeal should be allowed, and a copy of the judgment or order from the district court along with related opinions and memoranda. The winning party has seven days to file an answer in opposition to the petition for appeal or a petition of their own. The appellate court decides whether it will grant permission for the appeal to go forward. How does a case proceed once it is in the court? District Court Once a case has been filed and opened in district court, the parties prepare for trial. During discovery, the parties try to learn as much as possible about their opponent's case. They inspect documents and other items of physical evidence and talk to people with knowledge of the facts of the case. The purpose of discovery is to avoid surprises at trial. It often results in decisions to settle the case. As the parties prepare for trial, they usually go to a pretrial conference with the judge. The lawyers and judge meet before trial to refine the issues that will be presented during the trial and see whether they can agree on what issues are and are not in dispute. Many times, the parties reach a compromise without going to trial and settle the case. The vast majority of civil cases settle and the majority of criminal cases end with a guilty plea. If a case in the district court does not settle but proceeds to trial, the case is decided by a judge or a jury. If the case is tried before a jury, the jury must be selected before the trial begins. Citizens in the geographic area of the district court are called to the court to be available to serve on a jury. The attorneys and the judge ask the prospective jurors questions to determine whether they will be able to decide the case fairly and without prejudice (voir dire). The attorneys may ask the judge to excuse jurors who they do not believe can be fair and impartial (strike for cause). Each attorney also may reject a certain number of jurors for no reason (preemptory strike). Once the jury is selected, each party presents an opening statement. In the opening remarks, each party is allowed to present its version of the evidence to be presented during the trial. It is not appropriate to argue the case during the opening statement. It is an opportunity to tell the story that each party wants to tell about what they jury will be hearing. After opening statements, each party may call witnesses to present evidence. The party who initiated the case (the government or the plaintiff) calls witnesses first and asks them questions about the case (direct examination). The other party may ask those witnesses additional questions (cross-examination). The defendant may call witnesses after the plaintiff or government is finished calling witnesses, and the same procedures are followed. When the defendant has no further witnesses to call, the government or plaintiff may call additional witnesses to rebut the testimony of the defense witnesses. In addition to asking witnesses questions about what they saw or heard, the parties may introduce exhibits into evidence. These are physical objects used as evidence. For example, if the defendant is on trial for armed robbery, the government may want to introduce into evidence the gun alleged to have been used by the defendant during the robbery. In a civil suit for breach of contract, the plaintiff may want to put into evidence the actual contract at issue so that the judge or jury can read the terms of the contract themselves. The trial judge plays an important role in the presentation of evidence. The judge decides on the admissibility of the evidence based on the laws regarding the introduction of evidence. For example, the judge may not allow a witness to testify about what another person told that witness based on the evidentiary rules regarding hearsay. After all of the evidence has been presented, the attorneys may make final arguments to the judge or jury. Like opening statements, each attorney may summarize the most important features of his or her case and try to persuade the judge or jury to agree with that position. The parties may argue the facts of the case and how the law relates to those facts. In a jury trial, the judge will decide the law for the jury to apply to the facts during their deliberation and present this law to them in the form of instructions. The judge also tells the jury the questions they must decide during their deliberation. Once final arguments and instructions have been given, the jury retires to another room for deliberation. They decide the facts first and then apply the law as instructed by the judge. Through this process, they decide who should win the case. If there is no jury, the judge makes these same decisions and renders a verdict. Court of Appeals After a Notice of Appeal is filed or after the court of appeals approves a Petition for Appeal, the party appealing the decision of the district court files the record from the district with the appellate court. The record consists of the original papers and exhibits filed in the district court and a transcript of the proceedings in the district court. A certified copy of the docket entries is prepared by the district court clerk and sent to the appellate court, as well. After the record is filed, both sides to the controversy prepare and file briefs, which are legal arguments of the parties, with the court of appeals. Briefs contain statements of the legal issues presented, statements of the facts that are relevant to the issues being argued, and arguments for relief or why the judgment in the district court should be overruled or affirmed. After submitting their briefs, the parties may be permitted to present oral argument. Appeals are heard first by a panel of three appellate judges. They read the briefs submitted by the attorneys and review the record of the district court. During oral argument, each side is given a limited amount of time to explain their case and argue their position. There are no witnesses and no testimony or new exhibits. There is only argument by the attorney, based on the record from the district court and applicable law. The judges on the panel frequently ask questions about the relevant law. There are no juries. After oral argument, the judges consider the oral arguments, along with the written briefs. They also consider and apply relevant precedents. Precedents are similar cases that have already been decided by other courts. Each judge reaches a decision. At least two judges must agree on a decision, and one judge is chosen to write an opinion explaining the decision. These accumulated judicial opinions make up a body of law known as case law, which often serve as precedents for future cases. The losing party may ask all of the judges of the court of appeals to review the decision of the panel. If the appellate court decides that the district judge incorrectly interpreted the law, the appellate court may reverse the district court decision. Sometimes, the court of appeals will remand the case to the district court for a new trial. For example, if the court of appeals decides that the district court should not have admitted a confession into evidence during the trial, the appellate court may remand (or send back) the case to the district court for a new trial without using the confession as evidence. If the court of appeals decides that the trial judge correctly interpreted the law, they will uphold the district court decision. Source: OR What is the Difference Between Trial Courts and Appellate Courts? Terms hyperlinked in bold will display a definition of the term when clicked. There are three major differences between trial-level courts and appellate-level courts: 1. witnesses and exhibits, 2. judges, and 3. juries. Trial courts are the courts where cases start. In the trial court, both sides present evidence to show their version of what happened. Most of the evidence presented in the trial court comes from witnesses (people who answer questions relating to the case) and exhibits (items and documents connected to the case, such as pictures, clothes, weapons, papers, etc.). However, in the appellate courts, there are no witnesses, and no evidence is presented. In appellate courts, the lawyers simply argue legal and policy issues before the judge or a group of judges. In the trial courts, the lawyers present evidence and legal arguments to persuade the jury in a jury trial or the judge in a bench trial. The second difference between the two courts is the judges. In trial courts, there is one judge in the courtroom. That judge decides what evidence can and cannot be used and often decides the outcome of the case. In Indiana, appeals are decided by more then one judge. In Court of Appeals cases, there are five groups of three judges, and in the Supreme Court, there is one group of five justices. The Indiana Tax Court is the exception; there is only one judge. The last major difference between the trial courts and the appellate courts is the role of the jury. A jury is a group of citizens who listen to the facts and make decisions about the case. A jury is sometimes used in trial courts to help decide the case. In a criminal trial, the jury decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty. A criminal trial involves the government (the state of Indiana, for example) bringing charges against someone who committed a crime, such as robbery, murder, or drunk driving. In a civil trial, the jury decides whether a person is liable (legally responsible for damages) or not liable (not responsible). Individuals or companies who cannot settle a dispute file a document called a complaint to start a civil trial. Divorce, car accidents, and traffic violations are some of the most common types of civil cases. There can be a jury in either a civil or criminal trial. However, there is no jury in the appellate courts. Appellate judges determine the outcome of all appeals. A big misunderstanding about the appellate courts is that they simply rehear the case over again, evidence and all. But the truth is that appellate courts do not rehear the facts of the case. Appellate courts focus on questions of law, NOT on questions of facts like the trial courts. The appellate judges want to know whether the law was applied accurately. The appellate court overrules a trial court decision only if a very important legal error was made in the trial court. In some cases, the appellate court judges might believe that the outcome of the trial court should have been different, but if no legal errors were made, they will not overrule the lower court. The appellate judges make their decisions based only on legal arguments of how the law should be applied and interpreted. Source: AND LASTLY Understanding the Difference Between Trial and Appellate Courts. A trial court has broad discretion to determine credibility of witnesses and weigh the evidence, while an appellate court has very limited discretion to make factual determinations. On the other hand, an appellate court often has much greater leeway in interpreting the law. For these reasons, our attorneys understand that they cannot make the same arguments to an appellate court that were made to the trial judge or a jury. Because of the different role of an appellate court, issues which seemed important before a judge or jury may not be significant on appeal. Other points, which appeared trivial at trial, may prove to be reversible error on appeal. Thus, new insight from an attorney familiar with appellate practice and the appellate court is almost always helpful in deciding whether to appeal and, if so, what issues to appeal. Similarly, arguments cannot be made the same way before an appellate court. Emotional arguments which might appeal to a jury will most likely have little effect on appellate judges. And, finally, the rules which govern proceedings before an appellate court bear almost no resemblance to those which apply at trial. An understanding of the unique procedures in each of the various appellate courts is, therefore, critical to the efficient and successful handling of an appeal. We are thoroughly familiar with the rules, procedures and judges in each of the appellate courts in which our attorneys practice on a regular basis. Thus, our attorneys are well equipped to enter the appellate arena or to help others do so. Source: My e-mail is:

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