An appellate court is a court that hears cases in which a lower court --
either a trial court or a lower-level appellate court ? has already made
some decision, which at least one party to the action wants to challenge
based upon some legal grounds that are allowed to be appealed either by
right or by leave of the appellate court.
An appeal as of right is one that is guaranteed by statute or some
underlying constitutional or legal principle. The appellate court cannot
refuse to listen to the appeal. An appeal by leave requires the appellant to
move for leave to appeal; in such a situation the appellate court has the
discretion to grant or refuse the appellant's demand to appeal the lower
Generally speaking the appellate court examines the record of evidence
presented in the trial court and the law that the lower court applied and
decides whether that decision was legally sound or not. If the appellate
court finds no defect, it "affirms" the judgment. If the appellate court
does find a legal defect in the decision "below" (i.e., in the lower court),
it may "modify" the ruling to correct the defect, or it may nullify
("reverse" or "vacate") the whole decision or any part of it. It may in
addition send the case back ("remand" or "remit") to the lower court for
further proceedings to remedy the defect. In some cases an appellate court
may review a lower court decision de novo (or completely) such as in the
case of a pre-trial summary judgment motion to dismiss which is usually
based only upon written submissions to the trial court and not on any trial testimony.
Sometimes the appellate court finds a defect in the procedure the parties
used in filing the appeal and dismisses the appeal without considering its
merits, which has the same effect as affirming the judgment below. (This
would happen, for example, if the appellant waited too long, under the
appellate court's rules, to file the appeal.) In England and many other
jurisdictions, however, the phrase appeal dismissed is equivalent to the
U.S. term affirmed; and the phrase appeal allowed is equivalent to the U.S.
Generally there is no trial in an appellate court, only consideration of the
record of the evidence presented to the trial court and all the pre-trial
and trial court proceedings are reviewed ? in very rare instances new
evidence may be considered on appeal if that material evidence was
unavailable to a party for some very significant reason such as
prosecutorial misconduct. A party who files an appeal is called an
appellant, and a party on the other side is an appellee or, in some
jurisdictions, a respondent. More than one of the parties to the case in the
lower court can appeal the ruling, and when both sides do, they are said to
"cross appeal," because each party is both an appellant and an appellee.
Sometimes all the parties to the case appeal from the trial court's ruling.
After copies of the record have been made and certified by the court below
the appellant has the opportunity to present arguments for the granting of
the appeal and the appellee (or respondent) can present arguments against
it. Arguments of the parties to the appeal are presented through their
appellate lawyers, if represented, or pro se if the party has not engaged
legal representation. Those arguments are presented in written briefs and
sometimes in oral argument to the court at a hearing. At such hearings each
party is allowed a brief presentation at which the appellate judges ask
questions based on their review of the record below and the submitted briefs.
It is important to note that in an adversarial system appellate courts do
not have the power to review lower court decisions unless a party appeals
it. Therefore if a lower court has ruled in an inproper manner or against
legal precedent that judgment will stand even if it might have been
overturned on appeal.