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Thanks to movies, TV, and newspaper articles, most people know what trials are. For instance, they know that witnesses are questioned, objections are raised, and arguments are made to the jury. However, the federal appeals process isn’t as clear. Because appeals are rarely publicized, the average person has limited knowledge of the process. Clients are sometimes surprised to hear that in an appeal, lawyers don’t get the chance to present additional evidence, and that federal appellate judges sometimes make decisions without hearing oral arguments. Here, clients and families will learn more about the job of a federal appeals attorney.
A Basic Guide to Federal Criminal Appeals
Appeals are the legal procedures through which criminal convictions and sentences are reviewed by higher courts. Although there’s no constitutional right to a criminal appeal, the federal government has, by law, established an appellate court system that reviews lower courts’ judgments.
The federal system has two appeals court tiers: the US Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. The former reviews district courts’ judgments, while the latter reviews judgments from federal appeals courts. As the Supreme Court only hears 80-100 cases each year, the federal court of appeals is the only way to correct trial or sentencing errors.
What Does a Lawyer Do During a Federal Appeal?
In the federal courts, defendants must wait for final judgment before they can start the appeals process. The federal court isn’t likely to hear appeals filed before a final judgment. Appeals begin with the filing of a formal notice, which must be done within 14 days of final judgment.
After the notice is filed, the federal appeals court will enter orders that establish a brief filing schedule. The person appealing the case (or their attorney) must obtain transcripts and assemble the record on appeal. An appellant’s attorney will work with the prosecutor to determine what must be included in the appeals record. Arguments must be presented completely and clearly, because judges won’t consider an argument not included in the briefs.
How the Court Works
The appeals court usually works with a three-judge panel. The panel will read briefs, review the appellate record, and make a decision. Most federal criminal appeals are decided on briefs, which means no oral arguments are heard. Occasionally, though, cases are set for oral argument. This carries no guarantee of success, but in most cases, the federal court won’t reverse a conviction without an oral argument.
In the end, the appeals court will issue a written decision that’s accompanied by an opinion and an explanation of the outcome. The court’s opinion will recount both parties’ arguments, the case’s facts, and why the outcome occurred. Sometimes, the appellate court will issue a short opinion that merely reverses or affirms a case with no further discussion.
How Long Do Federal Appeals Take?
A federal appeal may take quite a long time, but the length varies from one circuit to another. If the case is complex or it involves a large record, the appeal may take much longer than the average.
At the widest level, the federal appeals court will reverse or affirm the lower court’s judgment. If the judgment is affirmed, it’s sent back to the trial court for enforcement. If it’s reversed, the appeals court will provide additional instructions on re-sentencing, retrial, or the dismissal of charges. Reversals are extremely rare, and because of this, reputable federal appeals attorneys will never guarantee them.
Hiring an Attorney
Though reversals are rare, an effective attorney will make a substantial difference in a case’s outcome. Choosing the right arguments and presenting them in a concise and clear manner is crucial for maximizing the chances of a reversal. If you’re considering hiring a federal appeals attorney, it’s important to do so as soon as possible.