The Appellate Role

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Appellate courts, often called courts of appeals, are a cornerstone of the U.S. judicial system. These courts have the authority to review and make decisions on the rulings made by lower courts, such as district or trial courts. The key purpose of appellate courts is to ensure that the law is interpreted and applied correctly during trials.

Unlike trial courts, appellate courts do not engage in examining new evidence or hearing testimonies. Rather, they focus on analyzing the legal procedures employed during the trial. They scrutinize the trial court records, the lawyer’s arguments, and the laws pertinent to the case, with the aim of identifying any legal errors.

Furthermore, an important distinction between trial and appellate courts is the scope of their influence. While trial courts only affect the parties involved, appellate courts have a broader impact. The decisions of appellate courts shape future case law, guiding lower courts on the interpretation of laws.

Importance of Appellate Decisions in Case Law

The decisions made by appellate courts, also known as “opinions,” significantly influence case law. When judges conclude their review of a case, they express their decision in a written opinion. This opinion doesn’t only explain the judges’ decision but also the reasoning behind it. This written opinion is crucial as it becomes part of case law, serving as a reference point for future similar cases.

In their opinion, judges can “affirm” the trial court’s decision, indicating they agree with the original judgment. If they find that the trial court made a legal error, they can “reverse” the decision. On occasion, they may “remand” the case, which means they send it back to the trial court for further proceedings, usually with specific instructions on how to address the identified errors.

The Long-Term Impact of Appellate Courts

Appellate courts leave an enduring imprint on the legal landscape. Each decision they make, whether to affirm, reverse, or remand a case, contributes to the evolution of case law. Over time, these decisions establish legal precedents that guide lower courts in their rulings.

Additionally, appellate courts play a pivotal role in ensuring justice and fairness. By reviewing the legal aspects of cases, they provide a crucial check on lower courts, ensuring that laws are accurately interpreted and applied. In this way, appellate courts contribute to the consistency and predictability of the law, enhancing public confidence in the judicial system.


Appellate courts serve a pivotal role in the judicial system, focusing on the correct interpretation and application of the law. They do not deal with evidence or testimonies but scrutinize legal procedures used in trial courts. Their decisions, captured in written opinions, significantly shape case law, influencing future legal interpretations. Appellate courts can affirm, reverse, or remand a trial court’s decision, each action contributing to the evolution of case law. Over time, these decisions establish legal precedents, enhancing justice, fairness, and public confidence in the legal system.

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File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  07/05/2023

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