Federal Appeals Courts


There is a lot of discussion about Judge Sotomayor.  Some of that discussion revolves around her role as a member of the 2nd Circuit.  Unfortunately, most folks do not have even a basic understanding of the role of the federal appeals courts.

First, while the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was written into the U.S. Constitution, the two levels of federal courts below that (U.S. District Courts and the U.S. Courts of Appeals) are creatures set up by Congress.

U.S. District Courts are trial courts.  If a person is “wronged” by a person from another state, they must file in a District Court.

Courts of Appeals are much more limited in what they can do.  From Wiki:

In the United States, both state and federal appellate courts are usually restricted to examining whether the court below made the correct legal determinations, rather than hearing direct evidence and determining what the facts of the case were. Furthermore, U.S. appellate courts are usually restricted to hearing appeals based on matters that were originally brought up before the trial court. Hence, such an appellate court will not consider an appellant’s argument if it is based on a theory that is raised for the first time in the appeal.

There are two extremely important things to take away from the Wiki piece.  First, if for whatever reason an item was not raised during trial, it will not be considered on appeal.  If your lawyer did not think of it during the trial, no matter how important, you are screwed.

Second, while the jury is the determiner of the “facts” the judge is the determiner of the “law.”  An appeal can raise questions on the application of the law, if the law applies or if evidence can be admitted or excluded.  But an appeal cannot (generally) speak to the validity of the evidence.  Courts have generally felt that the jurors in the trial court are the best deciders of the truth after having personally observed the witnesses.

Bottom Line: Rulings from Courts of Appeal in the U.S. most frequently revolve around whether the law as applied by the trial court judge has followed the intent of Congress in the writing of the law and any controlling precedent from SCOTUS or that particular circuit or any precedent from any other circuit.

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