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Trial Court vs Appellate Court: Know The Differences

Michael Agruss

Written and Reviewed by Michael Agruss

  • Managing Partner and Personal Injury Lawyer at Mike Agruss Law.
  • Over 20 years of experience in Personal Injury.
  • Over 8000+ consumer rights cases settled.
  • Graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law: Juris Doctor, 2004.

Understanding the distinctions between trial courts and appellate courts is crucial for a comprehensive grasp of the legal system. Trial courts, often known as courts of first instance, are where legal cases begin. They are the judicial venues where parties present evidence and arguments, and a judge or a jury renders a verdict based on the facts of the case. Trial courts are fundamentally responsible for determining the truth concerning disputed facts and applying the law accordingly.

In contrast, appellate courts do not revisit the factual findings of the trial court. Instead, they review the proceedings of trial courts to identify any potential legal errors. The primary focus of an appellate court is to ensure that the law was interpreted and applied correctly. During an appeal, no new evidence is introduced; the appellate court’s role is to assess whether the law was correctly followed and whether the legal rights of the parties were duly respected during the initial trial.

The two types of courts serve distinct roles within the judiciary, with trial courts offering the first level of legal adjudication and appellate courts providing a mechanism for review. It is through this tiered structure that the legal system seeks to maintain fairness and accuracy in the dispensation of justice.

View Of A Court room

Roles and Functions

The distinct functions of trial and appellate courts are pivotal in the judiciary system. Trial courts focus on establishing the facts, while appellate courts review the application of the law.

Purpose of Trial Courts

Trial courts are where the judicial process begins for most cases. Here, the fact-finding mission is to establish what actually happened in dispute, relying on evidence presented during trial court proceedings. The decision-makers – either judge or jury – play a critical role in evaluating this evidence. A trial court’s purpose is succinctly put as the arena where contentious issues of fact are settled. For example, in the case of a burglary, the trial court determines whether the defendant indeed committed the crime through witness testimony, surveillance, or other forms of evidence.

Role of Appellate Courts

The appellate courts step in after a case has been decided at the trial court level. Their primary role is not to reevaluate the facts but to ensure that the trial court correctly interpreted and applied the law. Appellate court proceedings do not involve juries or new evidence; instead, they focus on the premise of legal oversight. If a trial court is found to have applied the law erroneously, the appellate court has the authority to affirm, reverse, or remand the decision. They dive into the intricacies of legal arguments to safeguard justice and consistency in law application.

Court Structures

In the United States legal system, the court structures at both the trial and appellate levels serve distinct functions, with a clear hierarchy facilitating the progression of cases.

Hierarchy of Trial Courts

Trial courts, also known as district courts, are the foundational layer in the court system where cases are first heard. These courts are fact-finding entities, where a judge or jury listens to the evidence, examines witness testimonies, and renders verdicts based on the facts presented. Most states have a system of courts that may include local, county, and higher level trial courts, reflecting complexity and specialization in handling various legal matters. The federal system is divided into judicial districts, each with a United States District Court that handles federal cases.

Appellate Court System

The appellate court system consists of a hierarchy where higher courts review the decisions of lower courts. It does not involve fact-finding or evidence presentation. Instead, panels of judges focus on legal reasoning and the application of law. The intermediate appellate courts handle appeals from trial courts to review whether the law was applied correctly. At the pinnacle sits the Supreme Court, which primarily reviews cases of significant importance or legal principle from the appellate level and, in rare instances, direct appeals from district courts.

Judicial Decision-Making

In the judicial system, decision-making varies significantly between trial courts and appellate courts. This distinction hinges on the roles and functions of the trial judge and appellate judges, as well as the appellate review process.

Trial Court Decisions

Trial courts serve as the first arena where legal disputes are presented and resolved. The trial judge plays a critical role, overseeing court proceedings and, in bench trials, acting as the sole decider of facts. When a jury is present, however, it is the jury that usually assumes the responsibility of fact-finding. Here, the trial judge focuses on guiding the jury and ensuring that legal standards are maintained. The decisions made by trial courts are concrete as they directly affect the parties involved, often resulting in a verdict and a sentence or judgment.

Role of the Trial Judge:

  • Oversees the trial procedures
  • Instructs the jury on legal standards
  • Decides questions of law

Jury’s Responsibility (if present):

  • Determines the credibility of witnesses
  • Weighs evidence presented
  • Renders a verdict based on facts

Appellate Review Process

The appellate court’s role differs substantially, as it does not involve fact-finding but instead concentrates on the interpretation and application of the law. Appellate judges review the records of trial court proceedings to ensure the correct application of law and to address any legal errors claimed in the appeal. Unlike trial judges, appellate judges do not hear testimony or review new evidence. Their decision-making is based on legal briefs, the trial record, and oral arguments.

Scope of Review:

  • Verifies legal correctness of the trial court decision
  • Considers legal arguments in briefs and oral presentations

Appellate Judges’ Task:

  • Rule on the presence of legal errors
  • May affirm, reverse, or remand the case back to the trial court

Types of Cases Handled

Differentiating trial and appellate courts is essential in understanding their specific functions. Trial courts focus on hearing initial cases while appellate courts address appeals on prior judgements.

Cases in Trial Courts

Trial courts are the first level of the court system where a case is originally filed. They handle a wide variety of cases, including:

Civil Cases: Disputes between individuals or entities, such as personal injury claims, contract disputes, and family law issues.

Criminal Cases: Situations where the state prosecutes an individual or organization accused of breaking the law, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.

Cases in trial courts involve fact-finding, where evidence is presented, witnesses are examined, and a verdict is reached either by a jury, known as a jury trial, or by a judge alone, in a bench trial.

Cases Heard by Appellate Courts

Appellate courts review decisions made by trial courts. They typically do not hear cases but rather review a trial court’s application of the law. The cases they handle often involve:

Legal Errors: Examination of a trial court’s decision for any legal mistakes that may have affected the outcome.

Misinterpretation of Law: Ensuring that the trial court correctly interpreted and applied legal principles.

Appellate courts assess if due process was followed and they may affirm, reverse, remand, or modify a trial court’s decision. It is important that they do not establish facts but rather enforce correct legal standards.

Impact on Law and Precedent

In the legal system, trial courts and appellate courts hold distinct roles in shaping law and precedent. Trial courts are the initial venues where cases are heard and decided. The appellate courts, on the other hand, play a critical role in interpreting laws and establishing precedents that will influence future cases.

Trial court verdicts focus on the specifics of a case, determining the facts from presented evidence. It’s at this level that a legal decision’s direct impact is most apparent. However, when a case is escalated to an appellate court, the focus shifts from facts to the application and interpretation of law. Here, prior decisions, known as “legal precedent,” guide judicial interpretations.

The decisions made by appellate courts can resonate well beyond the individuals involved in a case. For example, when the Supreme Court reviews a case, its interpretations of constitutional principles and legal standards can redefine legal tenets across the United States. As the highest court in the country, its rulings set binding precedents referred to as case law by all lower courts.

Appellate rulings often become a cornerstone of legal education and strategic planning in law practices. Their interpretations construct a framework that ensures uniformity and predictability in law. Crucially, such decisions foster a dynamic legal system while upholding the rule of law and ensuring justice is administered fairly and consistently across the country.

If you have any additional questions about courts and what to expect moving forward in your case, contact a Chicago personal injury lawyer at Mike Agruss Law.

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