Q: What is a court of appeals?
A: A court of appeals exists to review the decisions of “lower courts,” which include municipal and common pleas courts. Municipal courts hear and decide certain civil controversies, misdemeanor criminal and traffic cases, and set bonds and handle preliminary matters in some felony cases. Common pleas courts are split into divisions by function: the general division of the common pleas court handles civil and criminal cases; the probate division handles matters such as wills and adoptions; the domestic relations division handles matters such as divorce and child support; the juvenile division handles matters such as delinquency and child neglect. Courts of appeals do handle some “original” matters, such as writs, but this article addresses only their role in reviewing matters originating in lower courts.
Sometimes, decisions made by a municipal court or common pleas court are questioned by a party in a case. When this happens, the party (or “litigant”) may appeal the decision to an appeals court that serves the appropriate geographical area. Each of these appellate courts cover territories of roughly similar size in terms of population so that the caseloads of the appellate courts are approximately equal. For instance, in Ohio, the First District Court of Appeals handles all and only appeals from Hamilton County, while the Second District Court of Appeals handles appeals from Darke, Miami, Montgomery, Champaign, Clark and Greene counties.
Q: What, exactly, do appellate judges do?
A: Appellate court judges do not re-try cases, and they do not hear new evidence. Rather, they review decisions made by the trial court. They are usually limited to reviewing only the arguments that were made in the trial court and raised by the parties.
The appellate court judges read the verbatim transcript that says exactly what happened in trial. They also read and review the “record” (all of the pleadings and rulings that were filed in the trial court). Then, they review all the law that applies to the controversy that has prompted the appeal. Finally, they determine whether errors of law occurred in the trial court, and whether those errors are serious enough that the judgment of the trial court should be reversed. If the judges find that the trial court did not err, or that the errors were not serious enough to warrant a reversal, they will “affirm” the trial court’s decision. The judges’ decision, in written form, analyzes the parties’ arguments, declares what law controls the case, and rules on how that law applies to the facts of the case. The written decision of the court of appeals becomes “the law” for that particular district.
Q: How many appeals judges are needed to decide whether a lower court may have made a mistake?
A: Ohio law requires each Ohio court of appeals to have at least three judges. In districts that have more than three judges, however, no more than three judges may decide a particular case. Generally, cases are decided by the majority rule of the three-judge panel. If, however, the panel decides that a jury’s verdict in a case is not supported by the evidence, all three judges on the panel must agree to reverse the jury’s decision.
Q: If I believe a decision of a case heard in a trial court was wrong, how would I appeal that decision?
A: You (or, more likely, your lawyer on your behalf) would file a Notice of Appeal with the court of appeals that serves the geographical area where the trial court is located. Once you file the appeal, you are considered an “appellant.” The person on the other side of the case who would be defending the trial court’s judgment is called the “appellee.” It would be up to you, the appellant, to make sure all pertinent records are sent to and filed with the court of appeals. Also, you would have to prepare and file a document known as a “brief” that tells the appeals court exactly why you think the trial court erred in its ruling(s). The appellee would respond with his/her own brief, arguing either that the trial court did not err, or that, if it did err, the mistake was not significant enough that the trial court’s decision should be reversed.
Q: What happens if I’m not satisfied with the decision of the court of appeals?
A: If you are not satisfied, you may appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Ohio, although the Supreme Court of Ohio is not necessarily obligated to accept your appeal.
This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Christine T. McMonagle, retired judge of the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cleveland. It was updated by Douglas Riddell and Bridget Purdue Riddell of Riddell Law LLC.