An appeal is a request to a higher court to review a decision made by a lower court. The higher court can review the entire case, certain aspects of the case, or the sentence imposed by the lower court. The appellant, who may be the plaintiff or the defendant in the lower court case, must show the higher court that mistakes or errors were made during the previous trial, and that the case should be overturned, dismissed, or re-tried. To explore this concept, consider the following appeal definition.

Definition of Appeal


  1. A request made to a higher court asking for a reversal of a decision made by a lower court.


  1. To make a serious or urgent request for aid, mercy, support, sympathy, or a decision.


1250-1300   Middle English Apelen

Who Can File an Appeal

An appeal can be filed on both state and federal levels when a party to a civil lawsuit, or the plaintiff in a criminal matter feels that a lower court has made an error. A prosecutor, who is the plaintiff in a criminal matter, cannot file an appeal, as this would create double jeopardy. Though all defendants are granted the right to file an appeal, the court is not required to grant every request for appeal, as there must be an appealable error.

Where an Appeal May be Filed

A defendant convicted of crime has a natural right to file an appeal unless the conviction came from the highest court. When a case is appealed, it must be appealed to the courts in order of superiority. For example, a criminal conviction in a state court must be appealed to that state’s court of appeals, and then appealed to the federal appeals court for that district. The convicted person cannot appeal straight to the federal court in most instances. The U.S. Supreme Court is a final step, and hears only matters of federal law, and most cases directly involve civil rights.

Grounds for Appeal

There are two main reasons, or “grounds,” for which an appeal may be filed: (1) a serious error was made at any point during the trial, and (2) the evidence presented clearly does not support the verdict.

Serious Error

Serious errors also known as “reversible errors,” must have infringed upon the rights of a defendant (or either party in a civil lawsuit) in order for the appellate court to consider them. Harmless errors are those errors made that do not have any effect on the case, and therefore do not provide grounds for appeal. When the appellant requests an appeal based on plain or reversible error, he must show that (1) an error was made, (2) that the error was clear or obvious, and (3) that the error interfered with the rights of the defendant, or substantially affected the verdict.

For example, after John was convicted of assault, and the sentence was handed down, his attorney files an appeal because the trial judge refused to allow John to represent himself during the trial. Self-representation may not be a good idea for everyone, but is a fundamental right. The appellate judge reversed the trial court’s decision based on this serious error, and ordered a new trial. The same would be true if John had not been offered representation at all, as all defendants are entitled to representation, even if they cannot afford to hire an attorney. If a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the court is required to assign a public defender to represent him.

Insufficient Weight of Evidence

An appeal based on insufficient weight of evidence is much harder to prove. Since the appellate court does not hear all of the testimony during the previous trial or view all evidence presented on appeal, it cannot necessarily make a fully unbiased decision. Because of this, most appellate courts weigh their decision based on their confidence in the trial court’s decision.

Appeal after a Guilty Plea

Defendants who enter a guilty plea at the trial court level have very limited grounds for appeal. Most commonly, the defendant can only appeal if he can show the appellate court that his attorney failed adequately to explain to him the effect that the guilty plea would have.

Trial vs. Appeal

There are two main differences between the original trial and the appeal:

  1. At the trial, both parties present their case by calling witnesses and presenting evidence. During the appeal, none of this takes place. The appellate court reviews the facts that were presented in trial court, as well as the parties’ appellate briefs. Additionally, the appellate court often allows each party a specified amount of time in which they can verbally argue their case, based on the perceived error.
  2. During a trial, a single judge presides. During an appeal however, a panel of several judges, ranging in number from 3 to 24, may hear the issue at one time.

Appeal Process

When a party decides to file an appeal, he must do so formally within a specified amount of time, which varies by jurisdiction. Because the appeal process is specific, most appellants have their attorney file the appeal, as it must include the exact issues on which the appeal is based. The appellant, or his attorney, files an official notice of appeal with this information with the court, forwarding a copy to the opposing party, known as an “appellee.” The court will then request the record of the original trial and all rulings that were made leading up to the trial.

In defense of the original court’s decision, the appellee will file a brief with the appellate court outlining why they believe that the original ruling was legal and should be upheld. The appellant is then allowed to file a “rebuttal” brief addressing the issues in the appellee’s brief. In most cases, the parties are invited to make oral argument before the court before the court considers and makes a ruling on the matter.

Decision of the Appellate Court

When considering an appeal, the decision is not immediately announced as it often is in trial court. The judges presiding over the case take some time to read the record and consider all of the issues before deciding. When a panel of judges is involved, they meet and take a vote on the decision. The formal decision of the appellate court is provided in a written opinion. If the decision is not unanimous, one or more judges in the minority vote may provide a written opinion, called a “minority opinion,” explaining why he or she disagrees. This process may take weeks or even months. In making its decision, the appellate court can:

  • Uphold the lower court’s decision so that nothing changes.
  • Reverse all or part of the lower court’s decision. This includes handing down lesser charges or overturning only part of the charges, if more than one were involved.
  • Remand or send the case back to the lower court for further action. In this instance, it is common for the appellate court to include instructions for the lower court to follow.

Changing a Sentence

When it comes to sentencing a defendant, most trial courts exercise discretion and it is rare for an appellate court to interfere. If an appellate court does interfere in the sentencing portion, it is usually only to send the case back to the trial court for resentencing, rather than changing a sentence directly.

Filing an Appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court

When a party loses an appeal in the state or federal appellate court, they can file what is called a “Petition for Certiorari,” which is a document asking the Supreme Court (the highest court in the land) to review the case. Filing an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court does not necessarily mean it will review the case, as this high court is very selective about the cases it chooses to hear.

The Supreme Court rejects many more cases than it accepts, and when it does accept a case, it usually involves important legal or civil rights issues, or issues upon which more than one lower court cannot agree. In considering whether to hear a case, the Supreme Court may issue a Writ of Certiorari ordering the lower court to forward all of its records regarding the case.

Appealing for Reasons Other Than a Loss

On occasion, a person convicted and his attorney know beforehand that it is impossible to win an appeal, but they go forward with it for other reasons. The most common reason is to drag out the process so that the convicted defendant can stay out of jail. In cases that involve the death penalty, the defendant has the automatic right of appeal, may request successive appeals in order to live longer.

Success Rate of Appeals

Unfortunately, the success rate of appeals is less than 20 percent. This of course varies by jurisdiction, and such issues as the experience of the attorney in making appeals may have an effect in garnering a higher success rate.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Reversible Error – A legal mistake made at the trial court level that is so significant as to result in an unfair trial outcome.
  • Appellant – The party that files an appeal with the appellate court.
  • Appellee – The party defending against an appeal. The appellee is the party that files a responsive brief stating why the decision made by the lower court is correct and just.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Double Jeopardy – The Fifth Amendment protects people from being tried for the same crime twice, and states that nobody can be compelled to testify against themselves.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Judicial Error – A mistake in a court or trial proceeding that concerns a matter of law or fact. Judicial error that materially affects the outcome of the trial may be grounds for an appeal.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Brief – A written legal argument outlining the reasons for the lawsuit or appeal based on laws, regulations, case precedents, and other factors as they apply to the case.
  • Lesser Charge – A lesser charge, or included offense, shares some elements of the main charge or greater criminal offense. For example, trespassing is a lesser included offense of burglary, aggravated sexual assault is a lesser included offense of rape, and manslaughter is a lesser included offense of murder.
  • Overturn – To change a decision or judgment so that it becomes the opposite of what it was originally.
  • Rebuttal – Evidence presented to contradict or disprove a presumption, a responsive legal argument, or the opposing party’s evidence. A contradiction to another party’s claims. In court, the opposing party is often allowed to rebut, or to make a rebuttal, after the other party makes its claims.