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Appealing Your Case: Appellate Courts Overview

***(I’m going to start out this little post with this Disclaimer:  I am not an appellate attorney.  I have never practiced within any appellate court, on any case appeal.  So just take this for what it’s worth–Someone with a little legal training pointing you to what appeals are about and roughly how the process works.  You’ve been warned…)

When we start talking about legal research or about finding out what the “legal precedent” is, i.e., how the courts have interpreted the law in other circumstances, we are talking about case law.  Case law comes out of the appellate courts–where you take your case if you’re not happy with how the district court decided it.  Case law will either be produced (in Utah) by the Utah Appellate Court or the Utah Supreme Court.  The appeals courts do not retry cases; they review cases for “correct” decisions, based upon how closely the court followed the law, within whatever standards the district court was supposed to follow the law. The appellate court will review everything the person appealing presents to them, including the full record of any court proceedings, and then either Affirm (say the lower court was right), or Reverse (say the lower court was wrong in some way and the trial court needs to give it another go based on what the appellate court says it should be doing.)

A very simplified, very brief description of the structure of the appellate courts in the U.S.

A very simplified, very brief description of the structure of the appellate courts in the U.S.

There are certain standards that the appeals courts hold the trial courts to.  Decisions that require factual determinations, for example, will have an “abuse of discretion” standard.  That means that in cases where the court had to assess the credibility of a witness or evidence, the appellate courts will not upset the district court’s decision unless they find that the district court “abused its discretion,” or trusted someone as a witness or trusted some evidence that was so obviously not trustworthy that anyone on the planet could see it.  Since courts have broad discretion in credibility issues, that’s a very tough standard to meet–more likely than not, the appellate courts will find that the district court did NOT abuse its discretion.

And so it goes…questions of law are determined by correctness in interpretation:  Did the district court correctly interpret the law, or did it screw something up?  This could be something that’s a violation of a rule of civil procedure, evidence, statute, or case law.  This one is a little easier standard for the person appealing a case to prove.  The upshot is that trial courts do not have the right to interpret the laws any way they please.

On appeal, the parties to the appeal, whether a civil case or a criminal case, are called the appellant and the appellee.  The appellant is the one who files the appeal; the appellee is the one on the other side who agreed with what the lower (district) court decided.  There are deadlines that come up pretty quickly after the final decision has been made by the lower court, and a number of hoops that have to be jumped through before you can get your case before the appellate court.  The Utah Courts webpage actually has on it a “guidebook” to pro se individuals doing their own appeals.  You can find that here.  That will take you to the Utah Courts information regarding the appellate process.  Scroll to the bottom of the page and you’ll come upon the Pro Se Guide, as well as downloadable forms.

Where the appellate courts meet in SLC...

Where the appellate courts meet in SLC…

Appeals are one of those times when I very strongly encourage hiring a lawyer.  It’s a unique process, not one that the general public is familiar with.  Also, on appeal the issues are entirely legal.  This is not about the “factual” basis of your case–this is so the court can determine if legal mistakes were made that were “prejudicial” to your case (i.e., but for that mistake being made the outcome of the district court trial would’ve been different.)  You definitely would be benefited, however, to learn what the process is, and at the very least what you’ll need to provide to your lawyer to proceed with the case.

If you are pro se/representing yourself on appeal:  KEEP TRACK OF YOUR DEADLINES.  If you miss a deadline on an appeal, you will have to talk like a dutch uncle to try and get the appeal reinstated.  Just be aware.  Deadline for filing an appeal in a civil case begins to toll from the day a final order is entered in the case.  Criminal appeals don’t have the time start tolling until AFTER sentencing (but if you want a new trial without doing the appeal first, you have to file a motion for new trial within 10 days after your trial concludes.)

Good luck….and Godspeed.

(More on the Utah Court of Appeals here.)

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