June 28th, 2022
What is an Appeal?
The judicial branch of our federal government and state governments consists of courts of law designed to handle civil cases, criminal cases, and administrative proceedings. Trial courts are the courts in which civil and criminal cases are filed and proceed until they are settled, dismissed on motion, or tried by jury or, in some civil cases, by judge. In the federal system, trial courts are called United States District Courts. In the state system, the names of these trial courts vary by state and are found in each county. For instance, in Pennsylvania and Ohio, they are called courts of common pleas. In West Virginia, they are called circuit courts. Additionally, most states also have magistrate courts that serve essentially the same purpose of the trial courts but which handle civil cases involving small dollar amounts in damages (the monetary range may vary by state) or criminal cases involving traffic violations or lesser misdemeanors.
But what happens if you file a case and you believe that a judge has improperly dismissed your case through motion practice or a judge or jury has wrongly decided your case at trial? Our legal system provides for appeals to appellate courts to handle such alleged errors of law and/or fact. In the federal system, appeals of right from District Courts are typically made to Circuit Courts of Appeals. Appeals of right are appeals which must be accepted by and heard by the appellate court. If a party believes that the Court of Appeals has wrongly decided the appeal, then a discretionary appeal (or writ) may then be filed with the United States Supreme Court. Most appeals heard by the United States Supreme Court are discretionary in nature; meaning that it does not have to hear them but instead decides whether to do so based upon its own rules and procedures. While some states only have one appellate court to which all appeals from trial courts are filed, most states also have intermediate appeals courts to which appeals of right may be made followed by discretionary appeals to the state’s highest appeals court. West Virginia has only recently created by statute an intermediate court of appeals which will officially begin operating on July 1, 2022. Appeals of right from West Virginia trial courts (circuit courts) will be made to the West Virginia Intermediate Court of Appeals and discretionary appeals may then be sought in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In Pennsylvania, appeals of right are made from trial courts (courts of common pleas) to the Pennsylvania Superior Court or, if a governmental agency is involved as a party, to the Commonwealth Court. Discretionary appeals from those courts are then sought in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In Ohio, appeals of right are made from trial courts (courts of common pleas) to Ohio Courts of Appeals with any discretionary appeals from those courts being sought in the Ohio Supreme Court.
It should be noted that on appeal alleged errors of law are handled by appellate courts as if they are addressing the issue anew (de novo) without any deference being given to the trial court’s decision on the issue. However, factual findings made by a trial court or a jury will be given deference by the appellate court and will be reversed only if the fact finder committed an abuse of discretion in determining the fact. Such deference is given to factual findings because it is believed that the judge or jury which heard the witnesses and saw the evidence was in the best position to decide the facts.