Appellate Process

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

The basic function of trial courts (both criminal and civil) is to resolve a factual dispute.  Matters of fact are left up to the “finder of fact,” which is a jury in the case of a jury trial or the judge in the case of a bench trial.  No case law results from these sorts of cases.  Do not confuse the idea of a case report and a case record.  Trial courts of general jurisdiction are courts of record.  This means that very detailed records of the proceedings are maintained.  Every document is filed, and a stenographer records every statement made in the courtroom.  It does not mean that the trial judge will write an explanation of why the court ruled as it did.

Most appeals cases arise because one party to the case was dissatisfied with the judgment of the trial court.  Most initial appeals will be filed in an intermediate appellate court.  In other words, the hierarchy of the courts must be followed.  Plaintiffs rarely get the chance to move directly to a court of last resort.  The appellate court will review the case and render an opinion.  If the resulting opinion is published, then it becomes case law (which can be altered or nullified on appeal to a still higher court).

The losing party can attempt to appeal the case to the court of last resort.  Most trials are conducted in state courts, and the appeals process starts in state appellate courts.  The court of last resort in these circumstances is the state’s Supreme Court.  This is commonly done by filing a petition for a writ of certiorari.  In most cases, the high courts have the discretionary authority to refuse to hear a case.  If the high court does hear the case, it will review the legal questions involved and issue a written opinion.  Such opinions become case law, and the matter is usually settled.  Occasionally, a federal constitutional question will merit review by the United States Supreme Court.  If the federal Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it will decide on the legal issues and issue a written opinion.  Such opinions become case law and are the final say in the matter (unless the court decides later to overrule itself).

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File Created: 07/30/2018
Last Modified:  08/10/2018

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