This spring at City Bureau, one of our reporting teams is looking into how people can appeal their cases — in particular, how do incarcerated people file and win appeals? We’re kicking this off with this basic explainer about the appeals process.

By Ellen Mayer

J. Stephen Conn,  Flickr

J. Stephen Conn, Flickr

The right to appeal

The right to appeal a court decision is written into Article IV of the Illinois Constitution. In criminal cases, only the person convicted of the crime (the defendant) has the right to appeal his or her case. In civil cases, on the other hand, any party can appeal a lower court’s decision.

For the purposes of this explainer, we’ll focus on the procedure for criminal cases.

Appealing a court case

In Illinois, the first stop for a court case is the circuit court. This is known as a “fact-finding” court, which means it will review evidence and testimony, determine the facts of the case and then apply the law to those facts. Once the circuit court has made its final judgment, the defendant can appeal that decision, which means the case will move up to the appellate court.

At this point, the defendant becomes the appellant and the prosecution becomes the appellee.

What happens in appellate court

By contrast to the circuit court, the appellate court does not review evidence or testimony, nor does it determine the facts of the case. The appellate court’s job is to determine whether the lower court correctly applied the law to the facts at hand. For example, it might rule that a court’s proceedings were illegal or that the circuit court judge made a factual error.

There is no jury in appellate court. Instead, a panel of three judges considers the appeal and makes a decision. The panel makes its final decision when at least two out of the three judges are in agreement.

Because the appellate court reviews the lower court’s proceedings, most of the appellate process happens in writing. The judges review all the written documents from the circuit court case as well as transcripts from every hearing. Together, these records make up the only facts that the judges can consider in making their decision. They cannot consider new evidence or testimony.

The judges will also review briefs submitted by both the appellant and the appellee. The brief is the document in which each party can make its legal argument about the facts contained in court records.

There is no formal trial in appellate court, but the panel of judges can choose to hear oral testimony from both parties and ask questions.

The appellate court’s decision

After reviewing an appeal, the appellate court can make the following decisions.

Affirm: If the appellate court cannot find any defect in the lower court’s proceedings, then it will affirm the decision. That means the appellant has lost his or her appeal and the lower court’s verdict stands.

Reverse: When the appellate court reverses the circuit court decision, the appellant has won his or her appeal. Generally a court will only reverse a decision if the judge in the lower court made a legal error.

Remand: If the appellate court finds that the lower court’s proceedings were unfair or illegal, they can remand the decision and send the case back to the lower court. That might mean there will be a new trial or that the original trial court will need to reconvene to consider new evidence. Alternatively, the lower court might simply need to modify or correct its judgment.

Mix and Match: The appellate court can also make multiple of these decisions at once. For example, the court can reverse the lower court’s decision and remand it at the same time. In that case, the lower court’s decision is overturned but it will still have to take more action to correct the proceedings.

All the way to the supreme court

Those who are unhappy with the results of their appeal have two options:
1. Petition for a rehearing

The appellate court rarely grants a rehearing unless there has been a new legal development or the appellant can show that the court misunderstood a material fact or misapplied the law. Even then, the court is more likely to modify a past decision than to grant a rehearing.

2. Appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court

The Illinois supreme court only takes 2 to 4 percent of the petitions that people file for appeal. The court is most likely to grant a petition if the outcome will have broad application across the state, for example if it impacts how we interpret state law.

An appellant can pursue both of these options at once.

What about the U.S. Supreme Court?

In most cases, if an appellant loses his or her appeal in the Illinois Supreme Court, the case is closed. The state supreme court is the highest authority in the country when it comes to state law. However, certain cases may have broad implications for the way we apply or interpret federal law. Those cases may be submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court but will have only a 1 percent chance of acceptance.


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