How do appeals work in a federal case?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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For appeals in federal court, the United States is divided into eleven geographical areas, called “circuits”. The District of Columbia also has a separate court system and a separate Court of Appeals. In each circuit, there is a Court of Appeals that hears virtually all appeals from all the United States District Courts in the states (and territories) assigned to that circuit.

The federal Court of Appeals system has jurisdiction over any cases coming from the federal trial courts. In order for a case to be heard originally by the federal trial courts, the federal trial courts must have had jurisdiction over the case, which means power over the case or the parties. Federal courts have the power over cases that involve federal laws. Examples of cases that the Court of Appeals will not typically hear include: criminal law, family law, and any other law that is state-specific. The reason for this is that the federal courts do not have the power to decide state law issues: they are part of the federal government only. In some rare cases, a federal court may have to decide a state issue, but generally the state issues to be decided were tacked onto an appeal dealing with a federal issue. 

Federal appeals must be filed within 30 days of receiving the court’s judgment. They are typically filed by an attorney specializing in appellate law and are limited to a specific number of pages. Once the appeal is filed, it must be served to the opposing side who must then respond to the appeal. Once the response is received, the appeal documents go to the appeal court justices. A panel of three justices will review the appeal and either affirm the trial court’s decision immediately, or request a hearing. During the hearing, both sides’ attorneys will give a brief argument about the appeal and then answer questions from the panel. After further convening, the justices will render a decision, which will either result in affirming the trial court’s decision or overturning it with specific instructions for the trial court.

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