When an appeals court hears a case, it is essentially considering a legal question that has already been decided by a lower court. When the appellate court considering a case decides that the lower court treated the matter correctly, then it will affirm the lower court’s decisions. That is the decision of the lower court stands. When the appellate court disagrees with the decision of the lower court, it can overturn or changes the lower court’s decision. When an appellate court overturns the decision of a lower court, it will often remand the case. Remanding the case means sending it back to the original court for further consideration. Much of the time, this means sending the case back to the trial court for a retrial. Whatever the outcome, the appellate court will always render a written decision that analyzes the legal issues presented in the case, and explain why the court ruled as it did. This review will nearly always review the primary legal authorities at issue.
In the United States, both the federal court system and the systems of the various states are hierarchical in nature. Case law originates with the appellate courts that are at the top of the court hierarchy. This is because appellate courts are called upon to resolve specific legal disputes centered on specific legal questions. How the court ruled and why it ruled as it did are preserved in written opinions. A small fraction of the cases litigated every year in the United States result in a written opinion. As a rule, the higher a court is in the hierarchy of courts, the more likely a case heard before it will result in a written opinion.
The lowest courts in most state court systems are courts of general jurisdiction. This is the level of courts where trials (both civil and criminal) take place. The primary job of trial courts is to serve as finders of fact. As a rule, the appellate courts will not hear appeals based on matters of fact unless there was a procedural problem with the way the facts were derived. Appeals courts only hear matters of law.
In most jurisdictions, parties not satisfied with the ruling of a trial court judge can appeal the decision to an intermediate court of appeals. These courts are usually composed of three or more judges that vote on the legal issues raised after careful consideration and debate. When the losing party to an appellate case still believes that justice has not been served, there is often the option to appeal the matter to a still higher court. The highest court in any jurisdiction is known as a court of last resort because there is no possibility of appeal beyond it. On the federal level, as in most states, the court of last resort is known as the Supreme Court. The rulings of these highest courts are binding on all lower courts in that jurisdiction.
Modification History File Created: 07/30/2018 Last Modified: 08/10/2018