The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants the right to a speedy trial, but that doesn’t apply to federal appeals cases. The U.S. legal system is built around the principle of legal redress of criminal and civil issues, but that legal process is completed after the trial and a legal verdict.
You can challenge the judgment in an appeal, but until appellate judges rule otherwise, the trial’s verdict is the law. Appeals are considered investigations into a trial based on solid legal grounds such as a violation of the rules of evidence, improper arrest, juror misconduct or tampering and other issues.
Why Appeals Cases Move So Slowly
Appeals cases move slowly – partly by design and partly by the ever-increasing volume of cases. Judges don’t schedule oral arguments in about 80 percent of the cases and handle them administratively through the exchange of briefs. This process can take a long time because judges can’t get instant answers as they do in the structured atmosphere of a hearing.
Federal courts are overwhelmed with cases, but the judges consider each case on its merits because an appeal is actually a charge of wrongdoing against a judge, juror, law enforcement officer or member of the prosecution team in the original trial. Judges don’t want to compound any errors by making further mistakes, so the entire transcript of the trial is reviewed.
The judges, prosecution and defense need time to research the legal issues, find precedents and consider the arguments. All this work takes time, and speeding up the process can lead to errors. Judges are human beings with limited time to devote to work. Even though they have assistants to perform research, each appellate judge handles hundreds of cases. Interspersed with handling appeals, judges also need time to schedule oral arguments and perform other duties.
Developing Reasonable Expectations
A federal appeal isn’t going to change anything right away, so it’s important to adjust your expectations. Most appeals take many months or up to a year or more. It might seem as if the judges are making a simple decision on whether to overturn a judgment, but a lot of thought and investigation goes into each case. The law runs on precedents, and overturning a judgment on appeal sets precedents that could affect many other cases.
There are 94 districts where federal judges preside, and there are 12 Circuit Courts of Appeal that oversee appeals on the decisions of these 94 federal courts. Appeals courts normally hear appeals from courts in their districts and appeals from administrative agencies. Circuit courts also hear cases that originate in state courts if they involve charges that a defendant’s rights were violated by local laws or law enforcement actions.
That’s a lot of work for circuit courts, and the backlog of cases increases every day. The Ninth Circuit Court has the slowest closure rate of its appeals cases – 17.4 months. The Ninth Circuit covers California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho. You might get a fairly quick decision if you live in the Fourth Circuit jurisdiction that includes Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. The Fourth Circuit has the fastest average closure rate of 8.8 months.
Technology Can Only Do So Much
Digital technology can speed up the process to some degree, but judges must read the trial transcript, research legal precedents and consult with teams from both sides. There is a process that takes time. Steps of the process include:
- The defendant in a criminal case files an appeal based on legal grounds and not to retry his or her case.
- The appellee, which is usually the government in criminal cases, must file a responsive brief to the appeal.
- The government is obligated to support any facts with researched citations and other evidence.
- The appellant can counter the appellee’s assertions with equally stringent evidence.
- The judges might have questions or need clarification on some of the issues.
- In about 20 percent of appeals, judges schedule oral arguments to help to finalize their decision.
All of these processes take time and resources, so people considering appealing their cases should understand that the process is anything but simple. No matter how clever and creative your ideas might be, the legal system is based on precedents, and if there’s no legal precedent for your arguments, your appeal is unlikely to succeed. If your rights have been violated by jurors or officers of the court, your appeal overturn the original judgment.