Appellate Process, Court Structure & Resources

On this page you’ll find some general information on the appeals process in Florida’s court system and in the federal court system, as well as links to resources for additional information.

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The Appeals Process

Many people are more familiar with the trial court process than with the way appeals proceed.  Unlike in trial courts, where the ultimate aim is to determine disputed facts after an in-court trial, appeals courts primarily address and interpret the law and apply it the facts found in the trial court.  Accordingly, the proceedings revolve around written arguments submitted by the parties.

The following is a very general description of the appellate process in federal appeals and Florida state court appeals for informational purposes only.  Consult the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure and the Local Rules and General Orders of the relevant courts for more specific information on Florida appeals or the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and the Local Rules and General Orders of the relevant Circuit for more specific information on federal appeals.

  1. Notice of Appeal—A party that is unhappy with a decision of a trial court initiates a first level appeal (e.g., an appeal from a judgment of a U.S. District Court to a U.S. Court of Appeals or an appeal from a final judgment or order of a Florida Circuit Court to a District Court of Appeal) by filing a Notice of Appeal with the clerk of the trial court.  Appeals may not be taken from any decision of a trial court, but only from a final order or judgment.  In limited circumstances, appeals are allowed from certain types of non-final orders (which are listed in Rule 9.030(b)) of Florida Circuit Courts, or in federal cases, from certain types of interlocutory orders where specific conditions are present.   There are strict time limits for filing a Notice of Appeal (in most appeals from final judgments, the time limit is 30 days).  The time limit generally cannot be extended.
  2. Preparation of the Record—The clerk of the trial court prepares the Record, which will be transmitted to the appellate court.  The record consists of the documents filed in the trial court, transcripts of court hearings and trials, the orders and judgments of the trial court.  But the party that initiated the appeal (called the appellant) has the responsibility to ensure that the record contains all of the documents and transcripts that party wants included.  If the appellant wants transcripts of hearings or the trial included in the record, he/she/it must make arrange with the court reporter for an official transcript to be made and submitted to the court.    Appellants generally must give their instructions regarding transcripts and record contents shortly after filing the notice of appeal (within 10 days in most state court appeals in Florida, 14 days in most federal appeals).
  3. Docketing Statements and/or Disclosures—Many appellate courts require appellants to file statements identifying the parties involved in the case, the names of the attorney(s) representing those parties (if known), and sometimes the names of anyone else whose interests are involved in the case, and/or the issues involved in the appeal.
  4. Appellate Briefing—Appellate judges decide cases primarily based on the parties’ briefs, which lay out their legal arguments for why the decision of the court below should be reversed or affirmed.  No new evidence is presented on appeal, as the only facts considered are the facts that are in the trial court record.  Appellate briefs thus primarily deal with legal arguments regarding the correctness of the court’s interpretation of the law or its application to the facts of the case.
    1. The Initial Brief is the primary submission of the appellant, which sets forth the facts of the case and the reasons the appellant believes the decision below was erroneous.
    2. The Answer Brief is the primary submission of the party who prevailed in the court below (which is called the appellee), setting forth its arguments in defense of the decision below.
    3. The Reply Brief is the appellant’s opportunity to try to rebut the arguments advanced by the appellee in its Answer Brief.
  5. Oral Argument—In some, but not all, appeals, either party may request that the court allow the parties to appear in person before the judges deciding their case to orally argue their respective positions and answer any questions the judges may have for them.  In many courts, oral arguments begin with each side attempting to make a presentation of its position, but quickly devolve into a question-and-answer session with the judges asking each side to address what they see as weak points in each side’s position, and to respond to their opponents’ arguments.
  6. The Appellate Court’s Decision—Appellate courts issue written decisions stating the disposition of the appeal.  In some, but not all cases, those decisions are accompanied by an opinion explaining the reasons for the court’s decision.  The amount of time it takes to decide a case varies with the complexity of the issues and the workload of the courts.  In Florida state appeals, most decisions are issued less than 6 months after oral argument, and generally less than one year after the initiation of the appeal.  In federal appeals, decisions are issued anywhere from a few months to more than 2 years after the commencement of the appeal.
  7. Petitions for Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc, Motions for Clarification—The party that loses the appeal may ask the the three judges who decided the appeal to re-consider their decision under very specific circumstances, such as where the decision is based on a mistake regarding the the facts found by the court below or where there has been a change in the law.  It may also ask for the court to vote whether to consider the appeal en banc, meaning that all of judges, rather than a panel of three, would hear the appeal.  Such petitions are appropriate only in limited circumstances, such as where the decision in the case conflicts with another decision of the same court on the same legal issues, or where the decision is based on the court’s legal interpretation in an earlier case, and there are strong reasons for the court to consider overruling that interpretation.  If the decisions implications are unclear, either party may ask the court to clarify its decision.
  8. Motions—Parties to an appeal can also file motions prior to the court issuing its decision in certain circumstances.  For example, if the appellee believes that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the case, it can move to dismiss the case.  Other types of motions include motions for extensions of time, motions to supplement the record, and motions to file an over-length brief.
  9. Petitions for Review—In cases where the court can choose to hear the appeal at its discretion, the party requesting review must file additional papers to argue in favor of accepting the case.  For example, when the Florida Supreme Court has discretionary jurisdiction over an appeal, the parties file Jurisdictional Briefs setting out their arguments for why the Court has/doesn’t have jurisdiction over the case, and why it should/shouldn’t hear the case.  To ask the Supreme Court of the United States to hear a case, the requesting party must file a Petition for Writ of Certiorari.  The party opposing review may, but is not required to, file a Brief in Opposition to Petition for Writ of Certiorari, and if it does, the requesting party may file a Reply in further support of its petition.  Petitions for Review are also filed instead of a notice of appeal in cases in which a party doesn’t have the right to appeal to a Florida District Court of Appeal or federal court of appeals, but may be allowed to appeal at the court’s discretion.

Florida’s Appellate Court Structure

Most appeals in Florida are initially heard by the District Court of Appeals.  That includes for all cases tried in the Circuit Courts (the trial court for Family Law Cases; Probate and Guardianship; and other Civil cases that involve more than $15,000; as well as Criminal cases involving Felonies or Juvenile Delinquency), as well as appeals from final decisions of administrative agencies.

Structure of Florida Appellate Courts

Courtesy of www.flcourts.org

Appeals from County Courts (the trial courts in small claims cases and other cases that don’t fall under the jurisdiction of a Circuit Court or administrative agency), however, are generally appealable to the Circuit Court in the same county, where they are heard by appellate panels made up of three Circuit judges.  Appellate decisions of the Circuit Court in those cases are appealable to the District Court of Appeal only in limited Circumstances.

Map of Counties Served by Florida District Courts of Appeal

Courtesy of www.flcourts.org

There are five District Courts of Appeal (DCAs) in Florida.  The First District (1st DCA) is located in Tallahassee, the Second District (2nd DCA) is located in  Lakeland, the Third District (3rd DCA) is in Miami, the Fourth District (4th DCA) in West Palm Beach, and the Fifth District (5th DCA) in Daytona Beach.

The 1st DCA hears appeals from the Jacksonville and Tallahassee and Panhandle regions (Bay, Calhoun, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Escambia, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Nassau, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Suwannee, Taylor, Wakulla, Walton, and Washington Counties);  the 2nd DCA hears appeals from Tampa, Sarasota, Naples and surrounding  Southwest and Central West Coast areas (Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, and Sarasota Counties); the 3rd DCA hears appeals from Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, the 4th DCA hears appeals from the West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Stuart Areas (Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee Counties); and the 5th DCA hears appeals from Orlando and Daytona Beach and the surrounding Central Florida area (Brevard, Citrus, Flagler, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, and Volusia Counties).

The party that loses an appeal to the District Court of Appeal can ask the Florida Supreme Court to hear the case.  Under Florida’s Constitution, the Florida Supreme Court hears cases only in certain specific circumstances.    In a limited number of cases, the losing party always has the right to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.  But in most cases, the Court has discretion to choose whether to review a case.

The Federal Appellate System Structure

The United States District Courts are the trial court in the bulk of federal cases.  Parties that lose in the District Court have the right appeal to the United States Court of Appeals, which are sometimes referred to as Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals.  There are 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals.  12 are geographically dispersed in major U.S. cities, with each Circuit hearing cases from the District Courts in its  immediate vicinity, and U.S. territories allocated among the Circuits, as follows:

  • 1st Circuit (based in Boston):  Appeals from federal District Courts in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, as well as Puerto Rico.
  • 2nd Circuit (in New York City):  Appeals from federal District Courts in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.
  • 3rd Circuit (in Philadelphia):  Federal District Courts in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and U.S. Virgin Islands
  • 4th Circuit (in Richmond):  Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, West Virginia.
  • 5th Circuit (in New Orleans):  Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
  • 6th Circuit (in Cincinnati):  Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.
  • 7th Circuit (in Chicago):  Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
  • 8th Circuit (in St. Louis):  Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebrasa, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
  • 9th Circuit (in San Francisco):  Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, as well as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
  • 10th Circuit (in Denver):  Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.
  • 11th Circuit (in Atlanta):  Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
  • D.C. Circuit (in Washington, DC):  Appeals from certain Administrative Agencies and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Map of U.S. Federal Circuits

Courtesy of www.uscourts.gov

The 13th U.S. Court of Appeals is the Federal Circuit (in Washington, DC), which has jurisdiction over appeals in certain specialized kinds of cases, including:  (a) appeals in patent and trademark cases, including from decisions of the U.S. Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, and U.S. District Courts; (b) appeals from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Board of Contract Appeals, and U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, and certain claims against the federal government; (c) appeals from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims; and (d) appeals from the United States Court of International Trade, and the U.S. International Trade Commission.

U.S. Supreme Court Cases

The party that loses an appeal to a U.S. Court of Appeals, and in some instances, a party that loses in a state appellate court, can ask the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. to hear the case, which is done by filing a Petition for Writ of Certiorari.   With very rare exceptions, the U.S. Supreme Court can generally pick and choose which cases it hears.  Most years it agrees to hear less than 5% of the cases it is asked to review.  Most of the cases it agrees to hear involve one or more of the following:  (a) federal legal issues on which the circuits of the federal courts of appeals are in disagreement (known as “circuit splits”); (b) a dispute the Court considers to be of great public importance (such as Bush v. Gore, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation Unconstitutional, and similar cases); (c) a ruling by the court below finding a federal statute to be unconstitutional; or (d) recurring issues in interpreting the United States Constitution.  A limited number of federal statutes allow for direct appeal from U.S. District Courts to the Supreme Court.

Resources

Here are some helpful links for more information:

Florida Appeals Resources:
Federal Appeals Resources: