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In which courts can a decision be appealed?

Both the federal and state court systems generally have three levels: trial courts, an intermediate appellate court, and a highest court (i.e. the Supreme Court). Appeals are made to the court at the next highest level, so a decision from a trial court will be appealed to the intermediate appellate court level, and so forth.

Look to Next Highest Court on State or Federal Level

At the federal level, all cases begin in United States district courts. District court decisions can then be appealed to one of the circuit courts of appeals, depending on which circuit has jurisdiction over the district court where the case was filed. Finally, court of appeals decisions can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which has the ultimate word on the law of the land. However, the U.S. Supreme Court hears just a tiny fraction of the cases that are appealed to it each year, so in reality, the federal U.S. Courts of Appeals represent the final word for almost all cases in federal court.

State courts have a similar structure with trial courts leading up to an intermediate appeals court, and finally to a state supreme court. Terminology for these courts is pretty consistent, but watch out in New York – the New York Supreme Court is actually the trial court level, while the New York Court of Appeals is, in fact, the highest state court and the final word on all matters of New York State law. Almost all other states, however, employ more traditional names for their courts. In some states, a dissenting opinion (or split decision) at the intermediate appellate level is required in order to take an appeal up to the highest court, unless the intermediate or highest court expressly permits the appeal to go ahead anyway.

As a general rule in both federal and state courts, decisions can only be appealed within the court system that the case began. Thus, a state’s highest court is typically the final word on any case that was initially filed in that state’s court system. Meanwhile, federal cases are appealed up the federal appellate court ladder. While rare, there are occasions wherein state court decisions can be appealed to the federal court system. This might occur if the appeal has questions of both state and federal law, such as when a state law appears to be in conflict with a federal law, or if there are issues involving parties from different states.

Some Special Cases Can End Up in Federal Appeals Court

It’s also important to note the role that special courts can play in the appellate process. Some cases, particularly those involving issues of federal law, may start in these special courts but continue on to federal courts if the decision is appealed. For instance, military cases may start in the military court system but can eventually be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, which is part of the federal appellate court system. Similarly, Social Security cases start out in a special administrative hearing, but those administrative decisions may eventually be heard in federal district court.

Regardless of whether an appeal is being made at the state or federal level, the appeals process is complicated. Getting a court to overturn the decision of a lower court requires a very strong showing of error as appeals courts often give broad discretion to a trial court’s findings. Having an experienced litigation and appeals attorney on your side is the least you can do to ensure you have the best chance of winning on appeal. 

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