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What is the Structure of the Criminal Appeals Process?

An individual will be tried and sentenced at the U.S. District Court, the trial courts in the federal system.  There are 94 District Courts throughout the country.  Litigants have the right to an appellate court review of the trial court’s actions. In criminal cases, the government does not have the right to appeal if the defendant is found not guilty, although the government may sometimes appeal a judge’s ruling on a motion.

An appeal of a District Court decision, including conviction and sentencing, proceeds to a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal.  There are 12 federal appeals courts in the United States.  At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty. The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury.  Appellate courts generally review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.

A party that loses at the federal appeals court level may ask the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the case.  Review at the Supreme Court is discretionary: the Supreme Court decides what cases to take.  The Supreme Court hears only about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. 

What are the Grounds for Appeal?

Grounds for appeal can include pretrial issues (such as the denial of a motion to suppress evidence), trial issues (such as a judge’s decision to admit testimony or other evidence during trial), or sentencing issues. A federal appellate court reviews a sentence for “reasonableness” using an abuse of discretion standard. Such reasonableness review actually encompasses two types of review—“procedural” reasonableness review and “substantive” reasonableness review. As the Supreme Court has explained:

Regardless of whether the sentence imposed is inside or outside the Guidelines range, the appellate court must review the sentence under an abuse-of-discretion standard. It must first ensure that the district court committed no significant procedural error, such as failing to calculate (or improperly calculating) the Guidelines range, treating the Guidelines as mandatory, failing to consider the § 3553(a) factors, selecting a sentence based on clearly erroneous facts, or failing to adequately explain the chosen sentence— including an explanation for any deviation from the Guidelines range. Assuming that the district court’s sentencing decision is procedurally sound, the appellate court should then consider the substantive reasonableness of the sentence imposed under an abuse-of-discretion standard. When conducting this review, the court will, of course, take into account the totality of the circumstances, including the extent of any variance from the Guidelines range. . . . [In the case of a sentence imposed outside of the guideline range, the appellate court] may consider the extent of the deviation, but must give due deference to the district court’s decision that the § 3553(a) factors, on a whole, justify the extent of the variance. 


As a part of an appellate court’s review for “procedural” reasonableness, if the appellant properly preserved the issue for appeal, the court engages in de novo review of pure legal questions concerning guideline application and reviews the district court’s underlying findings of fact for “clear error.” In order for a sentence to be deemed procedurally reasonable, the district court should have properly calculated the applicable guideline range and addressed all of the parties’ “non-frivolous arguments” about why a sentence should have been imposed outside the range. Even if a defendant did not properly preserve a guidelines application issue for appeal, a federal appellate court ordinarily must deem a guideline miscalculation as reversible “plain error” if the district court sentenced the defendant based on an incorrectly calculated guideline range. 


Regarding “substantive” reasonableness, the Supreme Court has permitted (but not required) federal circuit courts to apply a rebuttable “presumption of reasonableness” in reviewing a district court’s decision to impose a sentence within the applicable guidelines range. “[T]he presumption reflects the fact that, by the time an appeals court is considering a within-Guidelines sentence on review, both the sentencing judge and the Sentencing Commission will have reached the same conclusion as to the proper sentence in the particular case.” Such a presumption of reasonableness is applicable only to a federal appellate court’s review of a district court’s sentence; it may not be applied by a district court in determining whether to impose a within-range sentence. Furthermore, the fact that a district court imposed a sentence outside of the applicable guideline range does not trigger a presumption of unreasonableness on appeal. The Court also has stated that “a district court’s decision to vary from the advisory Guidelines may attract greatest respect when it is based on the particular facts of a case” as opposed to a general disagreement with a particular “policy” embodied in a provision of the Guidelines Manual. 

When Does the Supreme Court Accept a Case?

A litigant who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of a state, may file a petition for a writ of certiorari, which is a document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court, however, does not have to grant review. The Court typically will agree to hear a case only when it involves an unusually important legal principle, or when two or more federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently. 

Adapted from "Federal Sentencing: The Basics," U.S. Sentencing Commission, Feb. 2018 [Link], "Appeals," Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts [Link], and "About the U.S. Courts of Appeal," Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts [Link]


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