Deciphering the Appellate Process in Indiana: What You Need to Know

The appellate process is very different from trial court proceedings, but it is not difficult to understand when armed with some basic knowledge of Indiana’s court structure and the function of each court. Although you may hear terms like ‘rules of appellate procedure’ and read about how these rules can be complex with strict deadlines and various steps, the process can be boiled down to a far less daunting operation. This blog discusses the appellate process in Indiana and what you need to know when deciphering the procedure. 

The Indiana court system consists of city or town courts and county courts, which are called trial courts, and three appellate courts; the Indiana Tax Court, the Indiana Court of Appeals, and the Indiana Supreme Court (Indiana Judicial Branch). City and town courts handle ordinance violations, traffic citations, and some misdemeanors (I.C. 33-35-2-3). Most city and town courts are not open to lawsuits brought by private citizens, however some may allow filing of certain types of civil cases where the amount in dispute is less than $6,000.00 (I.C. 33-35-2-5). County courts are located in the seat of each county and may be comprised of any number of circuit and/or superior courts, depending on the size of the county. These courts have jurisdiction over original actions by private citizens, such as divorce, probate, paternity, and civil torts, as well as most criminal misdemeanor and all criminal felony charges brought by the state (I.C. 33-28-1-2 and I.C. 33-29-1.5-1). The trial courts hear testimony, conduct various hearings and trials, decide whether evidence will be allowed, what instructions the jury will receive, and make determinations on all issues of law before and during the trial or final hearing in a matter. 

The appellate courts, however, do not hear testimony or conduct hearings or trials (Court of Appeals of Indiana). They instead review the trial court transcripts, filed pleadings, and what the court did, both before and during each hearing or trial, then decide whether an error was made.  The appellate court may find some errors to be harmless, meaning they did not prejudice the rights of the party bringing the appeal, and therefore do not justify a reversal of the trial courts judgment (Ind. App. R. 66(A)). The court reviews cases based on the established standard of review for each issue raised. When a trial court enters findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of its judgement, the appellate court will review the case for a “clearly erroneous judgment”. A clearly erroneous judgment means that the evidence does not support the findings of fact and/or the findings do not support the judgement. The court may also review a decision for an “abuse of discretion”, which is basically how it sounds and is defined as “a judgement which is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances”. An abuse of discretion can also occur when the trial court ignores evidence regarding a statutory factor, such as the age and sex of a child in a custody case (I.C. 31-17-2-8(1)) or when it misinterprets a law (David & Bradford. Indiana Law Review, 2017). When conducting these types of review, the appellate court does not reweigh the evidence or witness credibility. It instead defers to the trial court’s decision regarding credibility and the weight of evidence, as the trial court is in the best position to make these judgements, due to the face to face interaction of the trial judge with each party and witness.  

An appellate court will not defer to the trial court when reviewing a case “de novo”. De novo is a Latin phrase meaning ‘from the beginning’ (Cornell Law School). This type of review is used when the trial court applied the wrong law or applied the law incorrectly. Because these cases are reviewed ‘from the beginning’ the appellate court may reweigh the evidence or judge the credibility of witnesses. It still will not, however, hear new testimony or allow new evidence to be admitted.  This type of review is generally applied when there are issues of law, such as the interpretation of a statute (State v. Rans, 739 N.E.2d 164 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000)).  

Once a party has decided to file an appeal, the first step is to file a notice of appeal in both the trial and appellate court. A filing fee must be paid to the appellate court at the time of filing (Appellate Clerk’s Office). Once the notice has been filed, you will need to pay a deposit on the trial court transcripts for any hearing or trial you wish to submit to the appellate court and work out payment arrangements for the remaining balance once the transcripts have been prepared. The next step is to determine the possible issues, then narrow them down to no more than the three, or possibly four, you are more likely to win based on the facts and appellate standard of review. You will have 30 days from the date the transcripts are filed with the court to write and submit a remarkably persuasive brief, that precisely explains the error, what the trial court should have done instead, and the relief you are seeking from the appellate court (Ind. App. R. 45(B)(1). Assuming there are no oral arguments requested or scheduled, you will then wait about 30 days for the opposing party to file its brief and after that, approximately three to four months to receive a decision from the appellate court. 

As you can see, the rules of appellate procedure are not really all that complex, but formulating issues and arguments that will get past the standard of review can be quite difficult. If you are considering an appeal, or have initiated the appellate process, the experienced attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. can help with this and will fight for you and your rights. 

This blog was written by attorneys at Ciyou & Associates, P.C. It is for general educational purposes. The blog is not intended to be relied upon for any legal matter or issue. The blog is not legal advice. This is an advertisement.    


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