Key Differences Between Trial and Appellate Courts


Many people outside the legal world misunderstand the differences between trial and appellate courts, along with the distinctions between what trials and appeals can legitimately do. Except in very rare circumstances, an appeal does not involve the introduction of new facts or hearing from new witnesses, as is the case in the initial trial. Neither will an appellate court look at the believability of witnesses, which is the job of the original trial jury or judge, nor will it look outside the record of information brought before the trial court. Rather, appellate courts look only at questions concerning the law and mostly work with trial transcripts, briefs or written arguments put forth by attorneys representing all parties. 

The 2020 case of People v Lendof-Gonzalez in New York shows how a successful appeal works. The defendant, in this case, planned the murder of his wife and mother-in-law with an accomplice who feigned cooperation as a hitman. Because of evidence that the defendant made detailed plans and otherwise prepared to carry out this criminal act, he was convicted of attempted murder in a jury trial. During the appeals process, however, the appellate court found the defendant not guilty, as the defendant and his accomplice had not moved beyond conversations regarding the crime. Because, according to the appellant judges, the “law does not punish evil thoughts, nor does it generally consider mere preparation sufficiently dangerous to require legal intervention,” the appellate court overturned the trial court’s decision. As seen in this case, the differences between trial and appellate courts show the purposes each court serves, though dissimilarities in viewpoint will not necessarily alter outcomes. 

Differences Between Trial & Appeal

A trial court primarily functions by determining the actual facts in a case and applying the appropriate law or laws to certain legal situations. Most decisions in trial courts, whether in federal or state courtrooms, are subject to review by an appellate court. This can happen whether the decision was issued by a judge or jury, and the appeals court generally just looks at whether any errors in interpreting the law occurred. While there is a right to appeal, losing parties cannot challenge a decision simply because they are unhappy with the outcome. 

An appellate court looks almost exclusively at whether a trial court made a legal error. In an appeal, lawyers for all involved parties submit briefs and, in some cases, appellate judges may ask that the parties present their arguments orally.  If an appellate court finds that an error occurred during the trial, the appellate court can do a number of things, including reversing the decision. Once a final decision is made by the appeals court, however, opportunities for further appeals are limited. This is true for both civil and criminal cases. 

Binding Decisions

Appellate courts consider whether statutes or prior court decisions were misconstrued, legal instructions were correctly given to juries, admissibility of certain evidence and other areas where the trial court may have erred. Yet one of the most powerful differences between trial and appellate courts involves the latter’s ability to make binding decisions beyond the case being heard. While trial judges’ decisions apply only to the case at hand, appellate courts decide on legal issues that include whether particular laws are constitutionally binding. 

Judge or Jury

One of the key differences between trial and appellate courts involves the participants. In the former, a judge either oversees a trial by jury or issues decisions “from the bench” without the involvement of a jury. Bench trials tend to concentrate on the evidence and arguments of the parties involved, whereas jury trials tend to utilize more emotional arguments to persuade jurors. In both cases, the judge acts as an arbitrator, ensuring that procedures are followed and that everyone follows the rules of the court. While both civil and criminal trials can involve juries, appellate trials do not. Appeals generally also involve a panel of three or more judges to review a case. 

Civil Cases

A civil case occurs when a plaintiff files a claim that actions or inaction by the defendant caused harm for which the defendant was legally liable. It implies that the defendant had a legal duty to protect the rights of the plaintiff, and can be brought in either state or federal courts. With civil cases, either party can appeal the decision or amount awarded in a judgment, sending the case to a higher court for review. 

The appeals process begins when the losing party makes an official claim – called a brief – that legal errors made by the trial court impacted its decision. The appellee – the party defending the trial court’s decision – files a brief that attempts to show that the original trial decision made by a judge or jury was the correct one, or that any errors had no effect on the court’s decision. The appellant – the party appealing the trial decision – seeks to persuade the appellate judges that an incorrect decision was made through a separate brief. No further evidence or witnesses are allowed, as the appellate court bases its review only on the recorded evidence and arguments made during the trial. 

Bankruptcy & Other Cases

In certain districts, separate courts handle bankruptcy appeals, though district courts sometimes handle such cases. Litigants who do not agree with the decision reached in the trial can file a petition for a review of the trial and, as in other civil cases, the losing party in the appeal may then appeal to a higher appellate court for review. Judicial reviews can also occur for disputes concerning federal agencies or programs, such as applications for Social Security disability benefits or 9/11 World Trade Center litigation. Though appeals concerning such disputes can take place in district courtrooms, these can also include panels of three judges. 

Criminal Cases

When defendants in criminal cases lose, they are convicted of a crime or crimes for which they will then be sentenced. To pursue an appeal in a criminal case usually involves hiring lawyers who specialize in the appeals process, as the procedures involved in criminal appeals tend to be quite complex. 

In a criminal case, the following can occur:

  • The appellate court can affirm the trial court’s conviction. 
    Sentencing may be modified by the appellate court.
  • The appellate court may send back, or remand, the case to the trial court for additional proceedings to reconsider facts, additional evidence or decisions by the appellate court.
  • Appellate judges can overturn a conviction and order the trial court to conduct a new trial.
  • Unlike in civil cases, if the government loses a criminal case, they cannot appeal not guilty verdicts, though either party can appeal sentences in guilty verdicts. 

Jurisdiction: Differences Between Trial and Appellate Courts

When considering the differences between trial and appellate courts, jurisdiction often comes into play. Lawsuits that involve state laws are generally heard by state courts. Most criminal cases also involve state law, as there is wide variation between states as to definitions of criminal acts, even for serious crimes like manslaughter or murder, and the defenses that can be used in the trial. 

Both state and federal court systems have hierarchies, with the US Supreme Court being the highest court to which a case can be appealed in the country. As with other lower appellate courts, all other courts must follow the precedents established by the US Supreme Court. Fifty-one separate legal systems exist in the United States, one for each of the fifty states, with a separate system for federal laws and the US Constitution. State courts deal exclusively with their specific state constitutions and laws passed by state legislatures, with each state having its own highest court, though in some cases federal courts may also have jurisdiction.

Federal Cases

US district courts, through the use of a judge or jury, determine guilt and liability in trials based on witness testimony and other evidence in cases that involve federal laws or the US Constitution. The system includes a total of 94 district courts organized into twelve regions, with thirteen appellate courts, which review procedures and decisions to ensure that the law was properly applied, along with confirming that trial proceedings were fair. To appeal a ruling, the party dissatisfied with the decision – called the petitioner – must ask an appellate court to review a case, while the other side – known as the respondent – responds and argues against the case brought by the petitioner.

State Cases

For questions that exclusively concern state matters, such as a state’s constitution, the federal government has no jurisdiction, so state supreme courts are usually considered final arbiters of law in these cases. Lawsuits involving state laws are generally also heard in state trial courtrooms. Most criminal laws are also state laws, and there may also be considerable differences between states as to what constitutes criminal behavior.

Probate and property laws are also state-specific, as are regulations regarding transferring ownership of real estate, vehicle registry and division of property after death. Laws concerning contracts and torts also occur at the state level, with certain states offering advantages when it comes to filing and appealing civil cases. State law for family law issues involving marriage, civil unions, divorce, child custody and maintenance, domestic violence and child abuse also happens at the state level. 

New York

Regardless of the area of law, the differences between trial and appellate courts in New York are similar to other states. In New York, the highest state court is the Court of Appeals, which is made up of seven judges, a chief judge and six associates, who are appointed by the governor to terms of fourteen years. This court establishes legal principles for the state when deciding lawsuits, and it is the final authority when it comes to state laws. In addition to directing decisions made by the New York Court of Appeals, the chief judge also serves as the primary administrative judge for the state. 

How Laufer Law Can Help in Trial or Appellate Courtrooms
Founded in 2000, the Laufer Law Group can assist with representation during trial or on appeal in a wide array of cases. Regardless of the differences between trial and appellate courts, we can advise on the best way forward in your particular case. Our law firm offers representation for a variety of civil cases, including auto accidents, medical malpractice, personal injury, workers’ compensation and civil rights law. If you or a loved one requires legal assistance, please contact Laufer Law today to schedule a consultation.

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