Appeals and Post-Conviction

The losing party in a decision by a federal trial court usually has the right to appeal the final decision to a federal court of appeals. Similarly, a litigant not satisfied with a decision made by a federal administrative agency usually may seek review by a court of appeals. Parties who contest decisions made in certain federal agencies – for example, disputes over Social Security benefits – may be required to seek review first in a district court rather than go directly to an appeals court.

In a civil case, either side may appeal the judgment based on a jury verdict or bench trial. In a criminal case, the defendant may appeal a conviction based on a guilty verdict, but the government may not appeal if a defendant is found not guilty. Either side in a criminal case may appeal a sentence that is imposed after a guilty verdict if it departs from the sentencing guidelines.

If the dissatisfied party in the district court plans an appeal, the first step usually is to file a notice of appeal in the district court, which informs the court of appeals and other parties.

A litigant who files an appeal from a district court decision is known as an appellant. The term “petitioner” is used for a litigant who files an appeal from an administrative agency or who appeals an original proceeding. The appellant (petitioner) bears the burden of showing that the trial court or administrative agency made a legal error that affected the decision in the case. The court of appeals makes its decision based on the record of the case established by the trial court or agency. The court of appeals does not receive additional evidence or hear witnesses. The court of appeals also may review the factual findings made by the trial court or agency, but typically may overturn a decision on factual grounds only if the findings were “clearly erroneous.”


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