Appeals are not always accepted by the higher courts. Just because a defendant wants to appeal a ruling, this does not mean that the judges will accept the case. In most cases, the judges will only accept to hear an appeal if it has been recommended by another judge, which can be accomplished by an attorney in certain situations, or if the judges think the appeal could have an impact on the law. Further, if they believe a certain aspect needs special attention or interpretation they will also accept the appeal.
It is important to understand that an appeal must be preserved during the trial. An appeal is preserved during the trial by an objection. If a trial occurs and no objections are made by the defendant or their representation, then nothing has been preserved for an appeal. This is why it is important to understand that an appeal is not a retrial or a rehearing. An appeal is the process of a group of judges at the federal level that evaluate the entire trial and all of its finding to determine whether the proper verdict was reached. All facts that were found at trial are the same facts that are used by the judges.
The defendant will usually never see these judges. Instead, their attorney will make what are called appellant arguments to this panel of judges. This is their process of explaining why the decision was incorrect based on the various objections presented in a brief. The brief is written by the attorney and it is simply the list of all of the challenges to the decision of the lower court. There is a large emphasis put on brief writing and appellant arguments in law school, so lawyers are extremely well trained. With that said, the appeal and its arguments are still a daunting task for the attorney, as they are insisting, using proper legal arguments, that a fellow judge of theirs reached the incorrect decision.
Federal criminal appeals usually take a long time, which can be seen as a burden on the appellant, with the entire process taking about one year. Additionally, with more time comes a higher cost. Appeals can be financially burdensome, but in most cases the defendant’s long-term freedom is on the line. Additionally, if there are to be future appeals, the process can continue to increase the cost. However, it is the only way to get a decision reversed and it is important to listen to your lawyer and trust in their experience and education.
Once the arguments are heard by the group of judges, they then meet to make their decision. They vote on their opinion and one judge typically writes the official opinion that will be read and may be presented as precedent in future trials in that federal district. The opinion will outline how the judges made the decision using current law and the basis of their holding. Sometimes, judges will add extra information that are not pertinent to the holding which are known legally as dicta. The results of this appeal determine whether this is still ground to appeal to the next level of court, or if the appellant will be deemed not guilty by a reversal on the decision of the lower court.