Most everyone has seen movies and television shows depicting the drama that may take place inside of a courtroom. Attorneys cross examine witnesses in order to catch them in a very important lie, jump up and down making objections to questions asked of their witnesses or unexpected testimony given by a witness for the other party, and sometimes get a confession out of the real killer right there on the stand. While this all makes for good entertainment, trials are not generally that dramatic or exciting. Appeals, however, are rarely seen in movies or television shows, as the appellate process is lacking in the theatrics and melodrama a writer can lend to trial procedure. And not only have many never seen what even takes place during an appeal, most do not know the difference in the functions of the trial and appellate courts; making appellate law seem much more elaborate and complicated than trial law. This blog discusses decoding the complexities of appellate law from an Indiana perspective.
The complexity of appellate law lies in the vast differences between the purpose of the trial courts and the purpose of the appellate courts and what each court actually does. Trial courts are Indiana’s first level of courts, often referred to as the “lower courts”. These courts try cases by allowing the parties to call witnesses, present testimony, and submit various forms of evidence such as printed documents, photographs and videos, audio recordings, diagrams, or other tangible items (Indiana Legal Services). The parties are also given the opportunity to cross examine the other’s witnesses, make objections to improper questions asked of a witness or attempts to admit evidence that should not be permitted. At the end of the trial, each party is provided with some time to reiterate the important facts of the case, make legal arguments, explaining to the judge or to the jury the correct law or laws that should be applied to the facts and how exactly each should be applied. The jury, or the court if there is no jury, then decides how the issues should be settled and a final judgment is entered so that the parties are aware of their responsibilities concerning each issue.
Appellate courts are Indiana’s second level of courts, called the “higher courts”. These courts do not try cases (Court of Appeals of Indiana). There are no witnesses called and no testimony given, no cross examinations, and no attempts to admit any tangible evidence. Instead, the appellate court reviews cases that have already been tried in a lower court to determine if any errors were made that require it to reverse, or overturn, all or part of the trial courts final judgment. When reviewing a case, the appellate court reads transcripts of any hearing or trial testimony or legal arguments that were submitted by the appellant as part of the record on appeal, reviews the pleadings filed by the parties and orders issued by the trial court and all tangible evidence provided, and reads each parties argument, called a brief, for why the lower courts judgment should be reversed, or overturned, or why it should be affirmed, or upheld. Each case is reviewed by a panel of three judges who decide, by majority rule, whether to reverse or affirm the trial court’s decision (Court of Appeals of Indiana). The appellate court may reverse or affirm the entire judgement of the lower court or can reverse or affirm only parts of the judgement. One of the judges then writes the opinion of the court describing the facts of the case, the issues in dispute, each parties arguments, and why it found the way it did. A judge who does not agree with the majority opinion may write his or her own dissenting opinion, if they so choose, explaining how they would have decided the case and why (Indiana Judicial Branch).
Not only does the appellate court review cases solely for error that requires it to reverse the lower court’s judgment, but its standard of review is based on the issue(s) in dispute, and for a large number of cases, this standard is a deferential standard. When using a deferential standard, the appellate court does not reweigh the evidence or judge witness credibility and only considers the evidence most favorable to the judgment (Dowell v. State, 206 N.E.3d 1167, 1170 (Ind. Ct. App. 2023)). So the court starts out assuming that the appellant is wrong and the trial judge got it right. It will then only reverse the judgment for a handful of reasons, including, but not limited to, a sentence is inappropriate in light of the nature of the offense and character of the defendant (Dodson v. State, No. 22A-CR-2779 (Ind. App. Aug. 21, 2023)), a finding is “clearly erroneous”, since the record shows no facts or reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the evidence to support the finding (A.D. v. Ind. Dep't of Child Servs. (In re A.D.), No. 23A-JT-253 (Ind. App. Aug. 14, 2023)), or the trial court abused its discretion, as its decision is clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances before the court (K.W. v. State, No. 22A-JV-3063 (Ind. App. Aug. 11, 2023)).
As you can see, appellate law is not really anymore complex than trial law can be, it is simply very different from what most have seen or experienced in the court system. 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.