A trial court does not have the final say in civil cases. After a trial court has issued its verdict, the losing party may choose to appeal. In that case, the appeal is heard by a higher court, which will review the decision rendered by the trial court. Appellate law involves high stakes, as often both money and reputation are on the line. Since this is a niche area of law, you need a lawyer with experience representing clients in front of the various appellate courts – both at federal and state. The attorneys at Feldman & Feldman regularly appear in appellate courts throughout Texas.
The Parties to an Appeal
In a civil appeal, there are the following parties:
- The appellant is the party who is challenging the lower court’s ruling
- The appellee is the party that won at the lower court and is defending the ruling before the appellate court in the hopes that it stands
- Other parties may choose to submit legal papers as an amicus curiae, which is Latin for “friend of the court,” in support of either the appellant or the appellee
It is possible for both parties to a trial to file an appeal. In some cases, neither party gets all of what it wants at trial, so each may appeal the aspects of the lower court’s ruling that it thinks were wrongly decided.
How State and Federal Courts Are Structured
Each level of the court system, both on the federal and state levels, has a higher-level judiciary component in place to hear appeals. Theoretically, a losing party can appeal their case all the way up to the Supreme Court. Whether it is the United States Supreme Court or the Texas Supreme Court depends on the type of legal claims involved in the case.
The levels of appeal in Texas state court after a state judge rules on a case:
- There are 14 courts of appeals located throughout Texas. These courts hear appeals of cases from trial courts in each respective geographical court of appeals district in the state.
- The party who loses the appeal at the court of appeals level can file a petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court, the final level of appeal in Texas, asking it to review the appellate decision. The Court will then decide whether to hear the case or not.
Appeals in state court proceedings are governed by the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure.
The levels of appeal in Texas federal court after a federal judge rules on a case:
- Texas falls within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit will either hear a case with a panel of three judges or will hear a case en banc, which means all the judges on the Court of Appeals will hear the case and participate in the decision together.
- The party who loses the appeal at the circuit court level can petition the United States Supreme Court for certiorari, which is a request to the Supreme Court to take up the appeal. In reality, the Supreme Court will only hear an appeal if it involves a crucial question of law or to resolve a difference in how several federal appeals courts are interpreting a question of federal law.
Appeals in federal court proceedings are governed by the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.
Appeals courts are supposed to fill a limited role in the judicial system. They are not a venue to retry the case or redo the job that the trial court already did. Instead, their role is limited to review. What that review consists of depends on the circumstances of a case and the errors that the appellant is alleging were made by the trial court.
How Cases Reach an Appellate Court
There are two ways that a case could make its way to an appellate court:
- A party can file an interlocutory appeal in the middle of the case when it disagrees with a certain ruling that the trial court made.
- More commonly, a party would appeal the final decision the trial court made that ended the lawsuit between it and other parties.
Once the case is concluded, the losing party may disagree with the result. The legal system allows them to file an appeal to a higher court. The appellant would need to come to an appellate court alleging something more than just “the lower court was wrong.” They would need to argue that the trial court made one or several errors that warrant a reversal of the decision.
Standards of Review in an Appeal
The standard of review is critical in every single appellate case. There are generally two standards that are used, depending on the case:
- Clear error. The appellate court’s job is not to review all the facts that were found by the trial court. Fact finding is the job of the trial court, and you do not get to retry the case in an appellate court. Thus, on questions of fact, an appellate court will generally give deference to the trial court’s factual findings. The appellate court would only review the fact finding for obvious errors.
- De novo. The trial court gets less deference on questions of law. The appellate court would use a de novo standard when it comes to reviewing legal conclusions. De novo is Latin for “from the beginning.” The main job of an appellate court is to correct errors of law. Thus, appellate judges consider themselves the experts and will review everything that the trial court has concluded legally from scratch.
How the Clear Error Standard Works in an Appeal
Here is what you need to know about the clear error standard:
- You will not get to introduce any new evidence in the case. Instead, you will be arguing that the trial court should not reached its conclusion given the record of evidence in the case before it.
- You may hear the terms “arbitrary and capricious” or “abuse of discretion” used when the trial court has made a clear error.
- The trial court will get a certain level of deference from the appeals court, which does not want to be in the role of second-guessing the lower court.
- It is difficult to win your appeal when all you are alleging is a clear error, given the deference afforded to the lower court under the standard.
- According to the S. Supreme Court, a finding is clearly erroneous when “although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.”
How the De Novo Standard Works
Here’s what you need to know about the de novo standard:
- Though the trial court will get deference on the factual issues from an appellate court, it will get little to no deference on legal issues.
- You often stand a better chance of winning an appeal if you are challenging a finding of law made by the lower court.
- Appeals court judges are considered to be superior experts in legal interpretation than trial court judges.
- The kinds of legal issues that are commonly reversed by appellate courts occur when lower courts erroneously interpret statutes.
Many cases will involve multiple grounds for appeal. The appellant may be contesting both certain trial court factual findings in the case and the legal conclusion reached by the trial court. In that situation, factual challenges will be decided using the clear error standard and legal challenges will be decided using the de novo standard.
Sometimes, appellate courts have to decide issues that don’t seem to be either clearly factual or legal challenges. In those cases, the courts will need to determine which standard to use by carefully analyzing the issues they are being asked to decide.
What Happens When You Win an Appeal?
In many cases, an appeals court will not issue a final decision in a case. Instead, if an appeals court finds that the lower court has made an error, it will reverse and remand the decision. In other words, the initial decision is no longer valid, and the case is not yet concluded. The lower court would need to rehear the case or a portion of it in accordance with the guidance provided by the appeals court.
In many cases, a trial court has mistakenly allowed certain evidence to be introduced or is responsible for another flaw in the process. If the appeals court finds that there was an error, the trial court must go back and reconsider the case properly after the appeals court has detailed exactly what was wrong. This is known as remanding the case back to the trial level.
However, if the mistaken conclusion was purely legal, the appeals court may issue its own ruling based on the facts of the case. There may be no need for the trial court to rehear or re-decide the case because the appeals court will simply apply the established facts (which are not being disputed) to the law and issue its own decision.
How an Appellate Lawyer Helps You
Along the way, here is what your appellate lawyer will do as part of their representation of you:
- Perhaps the most important job that your appellate lawyer will do is to file the briefs in your case. Appellate briefs are comprehensive legal documents that lay out a party’s appellate arguments in detail. A brief describes a party’s position and how it is supported by prior legal precedent. Briefs must be carefully crafted, both to persuade the judges and to follow the applicable rules of appellate procedure.
- In many cases, the panel of judges on the appellate court will ask the attorneys to participate in oral arguments. Often, as a Houston appellate lawyer begins to present their arguments, the judges will interrupt with questions as they see fit. In order to present a successful oral argument, an appellate attorney needs a voluminous knowledge of case law and precedent, and must be able to adjust on the fly based on the judges’ questions.
In reality, appellate lawyers are usually “the best of the best.” It takes an extensive amount of skill to shepherd a case through the appeals process. Appellate lawyers are often given a limited amount of time to identify any errors or mistakes and thoroughly and persuasively explain why they are errors. Appellate court judges are some of the most experienced and brightest jurists in the country, and they are not always an easy audience.
An appellate attorney will need to hone in on your strongest arguments early in the process. It does not make any legal or strategic sense to take the “kitchen sink approach” in an appellate argument. If your lawyer does, they may lose the judges’ support and distract from your strongest arguments. Your attorney will make these strategic decisions about how to present your arguments while under pressure and in a compressed amount of time.
Then, your lawyer will also need to be extremely well-versed in case law and precedent for the oral argument. There are times when oral arguments will feature a “hot bench,” which is when judges pepper them with questions throughout the allotted time. Some judges may even be trying to use these questions to make their own statements and persuade their colleagues to rule a certain way. In some instances, the case may hang in the balance during oral arguments, and a sentence or phrase your attorney uses could help frame the discussion when the judges discuss the case amongst themselves before deciding it.
Contact an Experienced Houston Civil Appellate Lawyer Today
The attorneys at Feldman & Feldman have argued numerous times in both state and federal courts of appeal. We have lawyers who have handled hundreds of appeals, and we are admitted to practice in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In other words, you can be confident that we have the necessary experience to make the most persuasive arguments in your case. Contact us today to discuss your case.