Appellate courts are responsible for reviewing issues of law related to the decisions made by other courts and administrative agencies. Appellate courts lack original jurisdiction and are collegial courts of record that correct errors of law made by lower judicial bodies and develop law.
There is variation among the states in the structure of state appellate courts. Thirty-nine states have intermediate appellate courts. Eleven states have only courts of last resort. The name and size of these courts vary by state. Justices primarily serve fixed terms and may be elected, appointed, or merit selected. Judicial discipline or removal from office may be handled by a judicial board or by the state supreme court. These courts hear a significant number of civil appeals, as well as all decisions regarding the imposition of the death penalty.
Federal Appellate Courts consist of the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Courts of Appeals are also called Circuit Courts and were created by the Judiciary Act of 1789. These courts handle the majority of federal appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court is created by Article III of the U.S. Constitution and has broad jurisdiction. Its primary function is judicial review. The U.S. Supreme Court controls its docket through writs of certiorari, discretionary review, and an independent calendar. The U.S. Supreme Court may not have the final word on an issue, and much of its authority is symbolic. Both the Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court have experienced an increasing number of cases filed and terminated.
Federal appellate court judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They have life tenure and may be removed through impeachment. Appellate judges are an extremely elite group, most of whom are white males from prominent families who have achieved prestigious educations and successful legal careers. However, an increasing number of women and minorities have achieved appellate judicial positions in recent years.
Appellate courts are collegial courts that decide cases in groups. For an appeal, there must be an error of law; an objection to the error must have been made; the appeal must be timely; and state remedies must be exhausted. Appellate courts are prohibited from issuing advisory opinions, and the appealing party must have the financial resources to undertake an appeal.
To handle their increasing caseload, courts have tried adding judges, expanding intermediate appellate courts, hearing cases in panels, employing law clerks and staff attorneys, deciding cases without opinion, utilizing unpublished and memorandum opinions, curtailing oral arguments, and using summary judgments.
Mandatory appeals often come from constitutional provisions or state statutes. These appeals are most common in intermediate appellate courts. Discretionary appeals are most common in courts of last resort. Appellate courts may offer federal post-conviction relief. This includes writs of habeas corpus and civil rights actions. Despite the avenues for appeal, few cases are successful on appeal, and the vast majority of people receive and serve the sentence originally imposed by the trial court.