If you appeal the verdict in a criminal federal case, your next stop is a federal court of appeals, which will be one of the U.S. Courts of Appeals. Which one hears your case will depend on the location of the original trial.
These are also known as circuit courts because up until the end of the 19th century, U.S. Supreme Court justices used to “ride the circuit” hearing cases around the country until the circuit court system was established.
Some federal appellate cases are decided by the small panel of judges from that court based solely on written briefs presented by the attorneys on each side. Others consist only of brief oral arguments to the court.
What happens if you lose a federal appeal?
Usually, that’s the end of the road. Most appeals decisions are final. That’s why it’s crucial that the appeal is justified and that the defendant’s argument that the trial court made a significant error is effectively and persuasively presented.
There are a few other options, though:
- The appeals court could remand or send the case back to the trial court to conduct additional proceedings.
- The defendant has the option to ask the entire appeals court (or at least more judges) to review the case “en banc.”
- The defendant can ask for a “writ of certiorari” asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case and decide whether or not they’ll hear it.
The last of these is rare. Even if they agree to review the case, the likelihood that the Supreme Court will accept the case to hear is small. Generally, the high court only agrees to hear cases that involve a significantly larger legal principle – often one on which at least two federal appeals courts have handed down contradictory rulings.
Your best chance of overturning a guilty verdict by a federal court is in the appeals court. The likelihood of reversing that initial decision gets considerably smaller after that. This is why it’s essential to have experienced legal guidance as you appeal the verdict.