There is a certain amount of mystique surrounding federal criminal appeals. It’s the reason why questions often arise concerning how they work and whether they enable counsel to present new information after a district court judgment. Another reason why aspects of the federal appellate process is unclear is because appeals are far less dramatic than court cases.
Unlike district courts, there isn’t a lot of room for drama because much of the process is handled in writing. Subsequently, there are no theatrics like what’s depicted on TV in district courts. To the dismay of those that prefer excitement, federal criminal appeals are sometimes complex, but the process is straightforward and requires strict compliance with technical rules, without any deviation.
In many ways, appellate courts are the opposite of district courts. Federal criminal appeals do not offer a chance to re-open or otherwise speak on facts from the trial. An appeal and a trial are two entirely different events that share no similarities, with the exception of being an integral part of the legal process.
An aspect of federal criminal appeals that many people find confusing is that most, if not all of the process is handled in writing. After all sides file briefs to raise and respond to alleged errors of a legal nature, the next step is the wait. As the appellate court reviews the case, there is a chance that they will communicate with counsel in writing if technical rules were not follow. Otherwise, months or perhaps a year later, the decision will be issued in writing.
As aforementioned, there is no courtroom drama during federal criminal appeals. Even if counsel submits a request to present oral arguments, that process is handled with a higher level of formality than you would typically find in district courts. Everything about appellate courts is more formal. In the event that oral arguments are presented, there typically isn’t a presentation where counsel is allowed a chance to speak for 30 minutes. Instead, there will likely be a question and answer session where clarification is provided about specific legal arguments.
Another way in which appellate courts are different from district courts is they are not considered courts of record. In other words, you won’t likely find a jury, court reporter, witness or witness stand in an appellate court. Why? Because there is no testimony or receipt of evidence. The information provided to appellate courts was acquired during the trial. No other information is needed, with the possible exception of legal clarification during oral arguments.
Another stark difference is the amount of time it takes to complete the entire process. While it’s possible that the federal criminal appeals process can be completed after several months, that’s not the norm. On average, it’s likely to take an entire year, if not longer. Appellate judges have to review hundreds of cases and it’s entirely possible that each one contains documents with thousands of pages. Even when staff attorneys assist with the process, it’s still a masterful undertaking that requires a lot of time.
Fortunately, there have been some changes to the process in recent years because appellate courts are starting to employ the use of technology for greater efficiency. This often includes allowing the electronic submission of briefs. This alone can eliminate weeks, if not months from the amount of time it takes to complete the process.
There are some aspects of federal criminal appeals that cannot be accelerated, regardless of what technology is implemented. When it comes to reading and considering arguments, appellate judges must take as much time as necessary to do so without error. There will always be a human element in the process of handling a federal appeal that can extend the timeframe. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of reviewing precedent or a large volume of complex information. There is simply no way to get around the lengthy timeframe of a federal criminal appeal.