A basic purpose of the United States federal court system is the protection of your individual rights. This includes the guarantees in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments protecting due process, a fair trial, and the right to remain silent, even in an interrogation or trial. Part of these basic rights includes the right to appeal the decision by a federal court.
The federal appeals process is available to parties in civil and criminal federal cases. However, after the decision in a criminal case, double jeopardy forbids the United States prosecutor from appealing a not guilty verdict. Only a criminal defendant can appeal to a higher federal court.
What is the Structure of the Federal Courts?
A federal statute ensures that the structure of the federal courts is the same across the entire United States. No matter where you live or your state of residency, you are afforded the same right to a federal appeal of a criminal case and will proceed through the same process.
Federal Trial Courts
Federal trial courts are called district courts. There are 94 different federal districts in the United States. There is at least one district court in each state, but several states have two or three different districts. There are also federal district courts in Puerto Rico, District of Columbia, Virgin Islands, Guam, and Northern Mariana.
Each federal district court is responsible for cases in a particular geographic area. However, this doesn’t mean that your criminal case will be heard in the closest district court to your home or business. If you live in Texas but commit a federal crime in New York City, the Southern District of New York can hear the case.
Federal Appeals Courts
The federal appeals courts are called circuit courts, formally called the United States Circuit Courts of Appeal. There are 13 different circuit courts in the United States. Each district court falls within one of these circuit courts based on geographic area and region. The Circuit Courts of Appeal are responsible for hearing and deciding every appeal of a federal criminal case.
On appeal, the applicable circuit court only looks at your case as decided by the trial court. There are no witnesses, no testimony, and no new evidence submitted to the circuit court. Rather, the court’s responsibility is to review what was presented at a federal criminal trial, read or hear the arguments of both parties to the case, and determine if the trial court made the correct decision based on this information.
United States Supreme Court
The most influential and important court in the United States is the United States Supreme Court. The decisions of the United States Supreme Court cannot be appealed.
Nearly 7,000 cases are submitted for appeal each year, but only a small fraction are granted a hearing in the Supreme Court. The rest are denied and the decision by the lower court stands.
Given the possibility that your case could be denied an appeal, it is essential you work with a qualified and experienced lawyer in crafting your argument for appeal.
Eligibility to Appeal a District Court Decision
There are explicit rules and requirements for appeals in a federal criminal case. These rules, found in the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and other procedural regulations, impose a wide range of eligibility and timing requirements. You must meet all eligibility requirements to file for an appeal. The most important eligibility requirements are:
- Only a criminal defendant has the right to appeal in a federal criminal case, except the United States prosecutor can appeal the sentence imposed in a federal criminal trial;
- You must receive a final decision from the district court before filing an appeal; and
- The circuit court, which is the federal appellate court, must have jurisdiction to hear your case.
Even if you meet these basic eligibility requirements, your federal appeal can be denied. The reasons for denial may include that the circuit court feels the legal issue in your case is already decided or that there isn’t federal jurisdiction to hear the case.
What is a “Federal Writ of Habeas Corpus?”
A “Federal Writ of Habeas Corpus” is a writ seeking federal court review of any alleged constitutional violations that occur during his or her trial.
The one-year statute of limitations imposed on state inmates seeking to have a federal review of the criminal convictions is very strictly applied.
“Certificate of Appeal” or “Writ of Certiorari?”
After a federal habeas corpus is heard, the defendant can then file either a “certificate of appeal” asking a Federal Circuit Court to review the appeal further, or ultimately file a “writ of certiorari” with the United States Supreme Court.
What is the Difference Between Federal and State Appeals?
When comparing the New York State appellate process to the federal appellate process one may notice that a person convicted at the state-level received many more opportunities to have their conviction reviewed.
How are Federal Appeals Similar to State Appeals?
- A federal appeal requires that counsel for the defendant file a notice of appeal;
- If the defendant is unable to retain counsel one will be assigned to them
- The same benefits that a defendant in a state appeal would have, a defendant in a federal appeal would have the same.
A federal appeal, like the state appeal, would be heard by a panel of judges generally referred to as Circuit Court Judges. Ultimately, the panel would make a decision on whether the conviction should be affirmed, modified, or reversed.
How Are Federal Appeals Different than State Appeals?
One major distinction between federal appeals and state appeals is that, while a New York State appeal will be heard in one of the four Divisions of the New York State Appellate Division, a federal appeal will be heard in one of the nine Circuits of the Federal Appellate Court that cover various states within the United States.
Faster Briefing Process: The briefing process for federal appeals is somewhat different and the time it takes to receive a transfer in a federal appeal is much faster. The reason for the faster appeals process is because the federal system is mostly electronic and state–of–the–art.
Appealing to the Supreme Court of the United States: Unlike state appeals, the next step from a Circuit Court decision to affirm a conviction would be an application to the United States Supreme Court of America. In that case, counsel would need to seek what’s called a writ of certiorari within 90-days of a federal conviction being affirmed.
Appellate counsel would decide whether to seek a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. It is at that point that a defendant on a federal level has completed the direct appeal process.
While a person convicted at the federal level does have opportunities to raise collateral attacks on their convictions via a federal writ of habeas corpus and a writ of Corum Nobis, the standards for those applications are much higher and the timelines vary.
What Makes a Good Federal Appeals Attorney?
One of the major distinctions (which should be obvious) between state and federal appeals is that the attorney completing the federal appeal should be familiar with the basic criminal laws of the jurisdiction where the crime occurred, as well as the federal statute under which the defendant was charged and convicted.
The reason for this is, for example, a defendant charged under federal RICO statutes leading up to a plea or trial. During the appellate process, there will be a litany of state criminal statutes they recite in a RICO indictment and trial in order to substantiate the federal RICO charge.
If counsel is not familiar with the state laws that make up the basis for the federal RICO charge, the defendant’s appeal would look different; meaning counsel may miss some very important points that could possibly result in a reversal of the conviction or at least a modification of the sentence imposed upon the defendant.
What if Your Federal Appeal is Denied?
The United States Circuit Courts of Appeal receive over 50,000 filings for appeal each year.
A vast percentage of these cases arise in the federal district courts, while others are started in bankruptcy proceedings or through prisoner petitions. Not all of these filings can be heard each year, and just as the United States Supreme Court can deny a federal appeal, so can a circuit court. Denial of your appeal does not end your case.
Your federal appeals lawyer can file a “motion of reconsideration.” This motion asks the circuit court to reconsider your appeal by shining a light on the underlying mistake of fact or law that wasn’t taken into account by the district court.
An alternative is to file a motion with the highest state court. This is called a petition for review, and it asks the state court to look at the circuit court’s denial for appeal and determine its accuracy. However, the state court is not obligated to consider your petition for review and may decline.
What Should You Look For in a Federal Appeals Attorney?
In sum, when considering what the best qualities are for a criminal appeals attorney, the thing to remember is that it is not the same as seeking a criminal trial attorney.
Most people, when seeking a criminal trial attorney, look for an individual whom you believe could best connect with the jury, as well as someone who you can get along with well because there’s high level of contact between a defendant and their attorney leading up to a trial.
However, the appellate process is a much more isolated process with less communication and personal contact between the defendant and counsel and is a much more academic and laser–focused process.
Call Our Federal Appeals Attorneys Now
Not every criminal lawyer handles federal appeals. The structure, process, and strategy for an appeal is very different from what is required at the trial court. To fully and successfully represent a defendant during a federal appeal requires specialized knowledge and admittance to the federal appeals court.
You need a lawyer that not only meets these basic requirements, but takes an active investment in your case.