The “pillars of affirmance” are guidelines designed to prevent too many cases from being overturned. Defendants are entitled to a fair and speedy trial, but after a conviction, the law necessarily accepts that justice has been served. The pillars help to reinforce that perception by acting more like bollards than pillars to block appeals unless they really address a major violation of a defendant’s rights. The four pillars of affirmation include:
- Preservation of Error
The Preservation of Error rule states that judges shouldn’t be reversed unless they were given a chance to correct their errors during the trial. Lawyer objections are the vehicles for challenging a judge’s actions or interpretation of the law.
- Standard of Review
The Standard of Review pillar holds that lower courts and juries are the primary arbiters of the facts of the case. Appeals cases are not used to uncover new evidence or challenge the facts that were accepted in district court.
- Harmless Error Rule
Even if errors are proven, the judges can rule them as “Harmless Errors.” These are real errors that have no effect on the outcome of a case, and they can’t be used to overturn a legal conviction.
- Stare Decisis
This is a classical Latin term that means precedent should govern all decisions and actions. Even if an appeals case introduces an innovative interpretation of the grounds for overturning a judgment, most judges won’t rule that way unless there is a legal precedent for the ruling.
Keeping the Focus in Appeals on Legal Procedures
It’s important to understand that appeals are not made to correct the unfair outcome of losing your case. You lost, and it’s hard not to challenge that decision if you know that you aren’t guilty. Unfortunately, almost all convicted defendants claim innocence. The legal system was established as a formal way to determine what really happened.
Appeals courts assume that the lower courts have the facts right and that convicted defendants deserve their convictions unless there is extraordinary evidence that exonerates them. Appeals are challenges to the legal procedures of the case. Acceptable grounds for an appeal include juror misconduct, improper jury instructions, lack of sufficient evidence, false arrest and improper exclusion or admission of evidence.
The record of the trial that’s being appealed is the primary evidence in appeals cases. The transcripts of federal cases contain word-for-word accounts of everything that occurs in the courtroom except conversations stricken from the record when the judge sustains objections. Only what occurred in the courtroom has any relevance to the decision in an appeals case except in cases where the defendant’s rights are violated in prison.
Appeals Are Only Granted for Legal Errors
It doesn’t matter if you discover a smoking gun that proves you didn’t commit the crime during an appeal. The cases are decided entirely on what happened in the original trial. That’s why most appeals cases are handled outside the courtroom through an exchange of briefs. Your attorney files an appeal, and the court notifies the prosecution to respond.
The judge or judges assigned to the case – there are usually three judges in federal appeals cases – review the transcript and the briefs that the defendant and prosecution file. If there are questions that the judges want to ask, more briefs are exchanged. About 80 percent of cases are handled without hearings or oral arguments.
Winning the Battle Might Not Win the War
Depending on your circumstances, winning your appeal might not generate all the benefits that you expect. The judgment is overturned based on legal technicalities, but that might not absolve you of a crime among your friends, family members and community.
The costs of an appeal can drain your finances. It’s recommended that you hire an experienced appellate attorney who knows the ins and outs of federal appeals cases. Appeals lawyers do most of their work on the case behind the scenes unless oral arguments are scheduled. Developing patience and attention to detail is necessary for success in appeals for both the defendant and the legal team.