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Courts make mistakes. If you were on the wrong end of an incorrect decision by a trial court, you may have the right to take the issue to an appellate court for review. The Legal Information Institute explains that a legal appeal is a “challenge to a previous legal determination” that is directed towards a higher legal power. 

For those considering an appeal, it is important to understand that trial courts and appellate courts have different roles within the legal process. These courts do not operate in the same way. Within this blog post, our appellate law attorneys highlight five key differences between trial courts and appellate courts. 

Difference #1: Trial Courts Set the Facts, Appellate Courts Accept the Facts 

One of the primary functions of a trial court is to determine the facts of a case. In order to do so, a trial court will allow both parties to present evidence and witnesses. From there, it is up to the judge and/or the jury to determine which version of events is more credible. In contrast, an appellate court is not responsible for evaluating (re-evaluating) the facts of the case. Quite the contrary, the appellate court will accept the trial court’s findings as given. The appellate does not hear new evidence or listen to new witness testimony. The appellate court will accept the trial court record as it already exists.

Difference #2: A Trial Court Hears New Evidence, an Appellate Court is Focused On the Law 

As part of the process of establishing the facts, trial courts hear new evidence and witness testimony. They will permit both sides to build a case based on factual claims. However, appellate courts do not consider new evidence, as their focus is on reviewing the trial court’s application of the law. This is perhaps the single most important thing to understand about appellate law in the United States: The party filing an appeal must demonstrate that the trial court made a legal error—such as misinterpretation of a statute or misapplication of a legal standard. The appellate court’s role is to determine whether these errors occurred and, if so, whether they were significant enough to warrant a reversal or modification of the trial court’s decision. To bring a successful challenge, an appellant must raise solid, well-supported grounds for appeal. 

Difference #3: A Trial Court Case Has One Judge, an Appellate Court Case Has Multiple 

In a trial court case, a single judge presides over the proceedings. It will be that judge who will rule on procedural matters, oversee the presentation of evidence, and instruct the jury—at least assuming there is one. On the other hand, appellate courts have multiple judges (usually three or more). All of the appellate court judges will review the case simultaneously. Indeed, the panel of judges collaborates on their decision, often engaging in extensive discussions to analyze legal issues and reach a consensus. It is a collaborative approach that allows appellate courts to provide a more thorough review of legal matters and ensures a balanced decision-making process. 

Difference #4: Appellate Courts Have Binding Legal Authority on Other Courts 

Appellate courts play a crucial role in shaping the legal landscape. As explained by the United States Courts, a court decision in an appeal has binding authority on lower courts within the same jurisdiction. When an appellate court interprets a statute, addresses a constitutional issue, or clarifies legal principles, its rulings serve as precedents that lower courts must follow. On the other hand, trial courts do not have the same direct impact on the development of the law. A trial court’s decision only binds the specific parties in the case. 

Difference #5: You Should Hire a Lawyer With Specialized Experience in an Appellate Court

Given the unique nature of appellate courts and their focus on legal issues rather than factual disputes, it is essential to hire a lawyer with specialized experience in appellate litigation. The process is notoriously complex. Appellate lawyers possess a deep understanding of legal research, complex legal analysis, and persuasive writing, which are vital skills for arguing before an appellate court. Most trial attorneys in the United States have little (if any) experience handling appeals. 

Speak to an Appellate Law Specialist Today

At The Appellate Law Firm, we specialize in appellate law. If you are preparing for an appeal, you need a skilled, experienced advocate on your side. Give us a call now or connect with us directly through our website for a completely confidential, no obligation case review. We provide appellate law representation in criminal cases, civil cases, and family law cases in a number of different jurisdictions, including California, Washington, Oregon, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and Ohio.  


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