Civil Appellate Law
Civil appellate law is concerned with the rights involved for the losing party in appealing the judgment in a civil case. Both the state and the federal court systems have courts that do nothing but hear appeals from lower courts. The appellate system exists to correct mistakes made by the lower courts.
In both the federal system and in Illinois, there are three court levels: one trial level and two appellate levels. In the federal system, the trial court is the federal District Court. Appeals from the District Court are made to the federal Court of Appeals. Appeals from the Court of Appeals are made to the U.S. Supreme, which hears only a small percentage of the cases that are appealed to it.
In Illinois, the trial court is called the Circuit Court. Appeals from the Circuit Court are usually made to the Illinois Appellate Court. Appeals from the Illinois Appellate Court are typically made to the Illinois Supreme Court, which is the highest court in Illinois. In very specific situations, a party could appeal a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The system described above applies to typical civil cases. It does not apply to criminal cases, which are tried in a completely different set of courts, nor does it apply to cases where special courts exist to hear those cases, such as bankruptcy cases, probate cases, and tax cases. Those cases may end up in the same trial or appellate system, but they are filed initially in their own courts.
Requirements. The first point to understand about an appeal is that an appellate court's role is to look at the actions of the court below it. The appellate court is looking at the actions of the lower court to determine if the lower court handled the case properly and without legal error. The appeal is not a second chance to try the same case again. The only chance to call witnesses and present other evidence is at the trial court level.
The second point to understand, related to the first point, is that the appeal must be grounded in legal error. The fact that you were unhappy with the result is not legal error. You can appeal a decision just because you didn't like the verdict, but the appeal will be dismissed unless it is based on allegations that the trial judge committed errors that materially affected the outcome. For example, if the trial judge ruled that one of your witnesses could not testify at trial, you can base your appeal on the fact that you believe that the judge made an error in not allowing you to present the witness. If, however, the appellate court rules that the judge committed error in not allowing the witness to testify, but it also rules that the trial court's judgment would have been the same even if the witness had testified, the error is said to harmless and the appeal will fail.
The third point to understand is that not every decision a judge makes can be appealed. Only final judgments that dispose of a case are appealable. In the example above regarding the trial judge's refusal to allow you to call one of your witnesses, you would not appeal that decision at the time it was made. You would wait until the final judgment went against you before you would file an appeal. In certain special circumstances, usually involving questions of first impression or of particular importance, a trial judge will certify a ruling as final, even though the case is not disposed of by the ruling, in order to allow it to be appealed during the trial. In that case, the appellate court would render a decision, at which point the trial court case would continue in accordance with the appellate court's judgment.
Procedure. The losing party has 30 days (20 days in federal court) to appeal a final order to the appellate court. After the appeal is filed, the party, called the appellant, has 35 days from the date when the record on appeal is filed with the appellate court to file a brief in support of its appeal. The brief sets out the legal arguments for the appeal and cites the relevant cases and statutes in support of the appeal. The winning party, called the appellee, has 35 days to file a brief in response to the appellant's brief. The appellant then has 14 days to file a final response to the response.
Once a case is appealed, the testimony taken at the trial is transcribed, and together with copies of all the documents that make up the case (pleadings, rulings, depositions, etc.), is sent to the appellate court. This bundle of documents is called the record. During the appeal, no other evidence can be considered other than the record.
In some cases, the appellate court will render a decision based on the briefs and the record. If the court is unable to reach a decision, it will request oral arguments, which means that the lawyers for both sides will appear before the court and argue their positions. The oral arguments consist only of oral arguments. No more witnesses testify. No more documents can be introduced. Whether the decision is made without oral arguments or after oral arguments are made, the appellate court will typically issue a written opinion explaining the reasons for reaching its decision.
Judgments. The appellate court's decision can take any of several forms. If the appellate court disagrees with the lower court's actions, it has several choices. If its finding disposes of the case, it will reverse the decision, which means that it will issue an opinion with a finding that is the opposite of what the trial court determined. A second option is to remand the case, which means that the appellate court found that the trial court made an error, and the appellate court is sending the case back to the trial court for further action. The further action could involve retrying the case, or it could involve the trial court reconsidering its final decision in light of the new considerations ordered by the appellate court. A third option is to both reverse and remand the case, in which the appellate renders an opposite judgment from the one made by the trial court, but additional actions by the trial court are still necessary before the matter is resolved.
If the appellate court agrees with the lower court's actions, it will affirm the decision. In other cases where the appellate court affirms the lower court's decision, it may also modify the decision, which means that it will make a minor modification that doesn't affect the final outcome.
Appellate courts can also combine any of these choices. They can, for example, affirm some parts of the trial court's decision, reverse other parts, and remand still others in the same opinion.
Appellate court opinions don't become final until all appeals are exhausted or until the time for an appeal passes without any action on the part of the party who has a right to appeal.