What Are the Circumstances in Which a Federal Case Is Submitted to a Higher Court?


When a federal lawsuit is submitted to a higher court, that generally means that the decision that the case received in a lower court is being appealed. District courts (also known as trial courts) are considered the lower courts. Circuit courts, such as the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, are considered a level above district courts. Circuit courts are usually where district court decisions are submitted for appeal. The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest level in the federal court system. In most instances, the Supreme Court is the last stop for appeals cases that make it beyond the circuit court level.

What Is an Appeal?

Following a federal trial court’s decision, the losing side, in many cases, can seek an appeal of the lower court’s ruling by submitting the decision to a higher court. The higher court in these situations is often a federal circuit court of appeals. However, other types of courts also handle appeals cases on occasion. That is because the appeals process is handled differently depending on the type of case involved:

  • Civil – Both the defendant and plaintiff can appeal civil case verdicts.
  • Criminal – The defense can appeal a guilty verdict in a federal crimes case. However, the prosecution cannot appeal a not guilty verdict. Both the defense and prosecution can appeal the sentence that the defendant receives after a guilty verdict.
  • Bankruptcy – Bankruptcies are handled in bankruptcy court. Therefore, bankruptcy appeals may be submitted to district courts. However, there are appellate courts that can handle bankruptcy appeals as well. In such instances, appellate courts assign bankruptcy appellate panels, which are made up of three bankruptcy judges, to hear and decide appeals.
  • Other – There are other types of cases that a court of appeals can review. For instance, in certain situations, federal administrative agency decisions can be submitted to a court of appeals for review. However, in some cases, these types of judicial reviews of decisions made by federal programs and agencies (such as disputes involving Social Security benefits) are handled by district courts first, not a court of appeals.

Despite the differences in how appeals are handled in different types of cases, generally, the appeals process involves each side submitting written briefs arguing their case to the court. Often, appeals cases are decided based on the briefs alone. However, in other situations, the court requests that the appellate lawyers make an oral argument in front of the court. An oral argument is a structured discussion between the attorneys and the panel of judges reviewing the appeal. Each side gets about 15 minutes for their oral argument, and during that time, the lawyers and judges discuss the legal principles of the appeal that are in dispute.

For the most part, court of appeals decisions are final, but there are exceptions. One exception is if the appeals court sends the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. Another reason that the appeals court decision might not be final is if it is reviewed en banc. When a court of appeals decision is reviewed en banc, it means that the decision is reviewed by a larger group of judges (typically all the appellate judges in that circuit). Finally, there’s a chance that the side that loses the appeal may be able to submit the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

How Do Cases Get Submitted to the Supreme Court?

In some cases, the side that loses in a federal court of appeals (or in the highest court in their state) can petition for a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari is document requesting the U.S. Supreme Court consider the case. Submitting a writ of certiorari does not guarantee that the Supreme Court will take the case. Generally, the Supreme Court will only take cases that involve an extremely important legal principle or a law that two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted differently. In addition, there are rare circumstances where the law requires the Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

Need Help with an Appeal? Contact Us Today!

Do you or a loved one need to appeal a decision that went against you? Have questions about submitting a federal case to a higher court? At Hester Law Group, our legal team has over 150 years of combined litigation experience. We have the knowledge and skills to answer your questions and successfully guide you through the federal appeals process.

For more information about how our legal team can help you or to schedule a complimentary consultation with our experienced litigation attorneys, fill out our online contact form or call us at (253) 300-3034 today!

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