How are cases decided on appeal?

There is an entirely different set of rules and procedures followed by appellate and trial courts. In addition to the state-wide appellate rules, each appellate court has its own internal operating procedures and requirements that must be followed.


An appellate court will never hear evidence beyond what was presented at trial. Instead, the court hears purely legal arguments based on the trial record. A trial record is made up of (1) everything that was said in the courtroom and (2) every document that was filed in the case with the trial court. The evidence contained in the record is the only evidence the appellate court will consider.

The legal arguments on appeal are presented to the court by way of a brief, which is simply a written legal argument. In criminal cases, the person appealing the conviction gets to file the first brief. Then the State gets to respond with a brief of its own.

Most cases on appeal are decided solely upon the briefs. In some cases, however, the appellate court may instruct the attorneys to appear before the court for oral arguments. In oral arguments, each attorney usually has 20 minutes to present his or her position. During that time, the judges will ask the attorneys questions they have about the case.

The panel of judges will have a private conference during which they discuss the case with each other. After the panel of judges evaluates the arguments on each side, each judge will indicate which side he or she thinks should win. Each panel has three judges, so whichever side can get two of the three judges to agree is the side that wins. 

After the judges privately discuss the case and indicate between themselves which side they think should win, one of the judges on the panel will write the court's opinion. An opinion is simply a judicial decision reduced to writing. If one of the judges on the panel does not agree with the other two judges, she may also write an opinion explaining why she thinks the reasoning or conclusions of the other judges on the panel are incorrect.

The court gives advance notice to the parties so that the parties know when the court will be discussing their case. No one knows the result of that meeting, however, until the court releases its opinion.