Powers of Appellate Courts


The power of appellate jurisdiction is the power of a court to review decisions and change outcomes of decisions of lower courts.  Most appellate jurisdiction is legislatively created, and may consist of appeals by leave of the appellate court or by right.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291,the courts of appeals (other than the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit) shall have jurisdiction of appeals from all final decisions of the district courts of the United States, the United States District Court for the District of the Canal Zone, the District Court of Guam, and the District Court of the Virgin Islands, except where a direct review may be had in the Supreme Court.  The jurisdiction of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit shall be limited to the jurisdiction described in sections 1292 (c) and (d) and 1295 of this title.

Under its standard of review, an appellate court decides the extent of deference it would give to the lower court’s decision, based on the fact or law of the appeal.

The authority of appellate courts to review a decisions of lower courts varies widely from one jurisdiction to another. In some places, the appellate court has limited powers of review. For example, in the United States, both state and federal appellate courts are usually restricted to examining whether the court below made the correct legal determinations, rather than hearing direct evidence and determining what the facts of the case were. Furthermore, U.S. appellate courts are usually restricted to hearing appeals based on matters that were originally brought up before the trial court.  Hence, such an appellate court will not consider an appellant’s argument if it is based on a theory that is raised for the first time in the appeal.

In most State courts and in U.S. federal courts, parties before the court are allowed one appeal as of right.  This means that a party who is unsatisfied with the outcome of a trial or other final judgment may bring an appeal to contest that outcome.  However, appeals may be costly, and the appellate court must find an error on the part of the court below that justifies upsetting the verdict.  Therefore, only a small proportion of trial court decisions result in appeals. Some appellate courts, particularly supreme courts, have the power of discretionary review, meaning that they can decide whether they will hear an appeal brought in a particular case.

Federal appellate courts are given the discretion to dispose of a case in such a manner as justice requires.  Thus, the Supreme Court of the United States, or any other federal court of appellate jurisdiction, may affirm, modify, vacate, set aside, or reverse any judgment, decree, or order of a court which is lawfully brought before it for review.  A federal appellate court may remand the cause and direct the entry of such appropriate judgment, decree, or order, or require such further proceedings to be had as may be just under the circumstances[i].

Generally, on reviewing a lower court’s decision, state appellate courts can affirm, reverse, or modify the judgment.  State appellate courts also have the power to remand cases for further proceedings, including a new trial, the introduction of new evidence, clarification of a lower court’s ruling, joinder of additional parties[ii], or entry of additional findings.

However, when a lower court does not have jurisdiction over the case before it, an appellate court also lacks jurisdiction to review the merits of the claim, issue, or question presented to the lower court.

[i] 28 USCS § 2106

[ii]Hatfield v. Bush, 540 So. 2d 1178 (La.App. 1 Cir. 1989)