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An Ultimate Guide to the Federal Appeals Process
Thursday, February 9, 2023

While the trial court proceedings is portrayed in numerous movies and TV shows, the appellate process is hardly depicted at all. This leaves many federal criminal defendants with a poor understanding of what can happen if they are convicted at trial or receive a sentence that is disproportionate to the offense. If either of these things should happen, appealing your case in a federal court of appeals is the only way to challenge the setback of the trial court decision. Understanding what you are about to get into is the first step in making an informed decision about your future.

The Appeal Does Not Retry Your Case

One of the most important things to understand about the appeals process is that you will not get a new trial – at least not at first.

When you appeal your sentence or conviction, you have to show that something went wrong in the district court that held your trial. The grounds for your appeal will then take up the entire appellate procedure – a higher court will review your case to determine whether your rights were violated by the mistakes that you claim were made.

At no point is a jury seated and witnesses provide testimony during your appeal. Instead, the Circuit Court hearing your appeal will confine itself almost entirely to the record of the trial that was collected by the district court, or lower court. No new evidence is presented and, by and large, the factual circumstances of the case are not questioned.

You Need a Valid Grounds for Appeal

In order to persuade the appellate courts to take a further look at your case, you need to show the judges on it that something went wrong. A few of the most common grounds for an appeal of federal criminal convictions are:

  • The jury’s verdict clearly went against the weight of the evidence

  • The trial court made an evidentiary ruling that unfairly prejudiced your case

  • Your civil rights were violated

  • Your sentence was disproportionate to your conviction

  • There was an unsettled point of law that determined the case

Note that it is insufficient to simply say that you did not like the outcome.

Once the appellate court finds a valid ground for your appeal, it will consume the rest of the appeals process. The entire appellate review will center on the issue that you have raised.

In many cases, how you present the issue for appeal can influence how your case turns out.

Filing the Notice of Appeal with the District Court

Something that surprises federal defendants who want to appeal their case is that they have to move quickly or they can lose their right to appeal. 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 filing, which is a simple one, initiates the appeals process. If it is not done on time, you may struggle to have the appellate courts hear your case at all.

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

Preparing Your Brief for the Circuit Court

Researching and writing the appeals brief – as well as any answers to the prosecutor’s written briefs to the appellate court – is the focal point of an appellate lawyer’s practice. In many cases, these appellate briefs nitpick at an extremely small point of law that can make or break your case.

It is at this stage that the difference between a trial lawyer and an appellate attorney becomes the most evident. As Dr. Nick Oberheiden, founding member of the federal appeals law firm Oberheiden P.C., describes it, “Trial attorneys need to have an intimate understanding of the factual circumstances in your case. Appellate attorneys, on the other hand, need to have an intimate knowledge of the minute legal points that were used to resolve your case at the district court level. By showing the appellate court that the trial judge made a mistake – no matter how small – that altered the trajectory of your case and led to your conviction, an appeals lawyer can get the outcome you want and that you were deprived of at trial.”

The Oral Argument and Ruling

In many cases, the Circuit Court judges will issue a ruling based on the arguments laid out in the legal briefs, alone. However, some other cases call for an oral argument. This is a hearing in front of the appellate court’s presiding judges where your defense lawyer and the prosecutor on the case will explain why the lower court’s judgment against you should or should not be overturned on appeal.

After both sides of the case have been presented, the judges will consider the arguments and issue an appeals decision or ruling.

Next Steps

If the Circuit Court rules against you and affirms the district court’s decision, you have the option to try to take your case to the United States Supreme Court. However, filing for a writ of certiorari to get your case heard by the Supreme Court is a long shot endeavor. The highest court in the country only accepts around 2 percent of the petitions that it receives. Furthermore, petitioning for a writ of certiorari is a complicated affair with several different procedures and deadlines to follow. However, appealing to the Supreme Court can be worth the effort if the stakes are high enough, and particularly if your case presents unique legal questions that have not adequately been resolved yet as these can increase the chances that the Court takes your case.

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

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