- The Federal System and Federal Criminal Appeals
- The Unites States District Courts: The Trial Courts for Federal Criminal Cases
- The Circuit Courts of Appeals
- The Appellate Process In Federal Criminal Cases
- The Notice of Appeal
- Review of the Record and Legal Research
- Writing The Appellate Brief
- Oral Argument
- The Appellate Court Decision
- Appealing To The United States Supreme Court
The Federal System and Federal Criminal Appeals
Criminal trials in the Federal system are held in the United States District Courts. Each State of the United States is divided into one or more geographic districts, and there are 89 districts throughout the United States.
There is at least one judicial district for each State, with each federal district having at least one courthouse, and many districts having more than one.
The Federal Trial Courts in New York are divided into four geographical Districts encompassing various counties in New York State. They are the Southern District, the Eastern District, the Northern District, and the Western District.
The Southern District encompasses the following counties: Manhattan, Bronx, Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Orange, Duchess, and Sullivan.
The Eastern District encompasses the following counties: Brooklyn (Kings), Queens, Richmond (Staten Island), Nassau, and Suffolk.
The Northern District of New York encompasses these counties: Albany, Broome, Cayuga, Chenango, Clinton, Columbia, Cortland, Delaware, Essex, Franklin, Fulton, Greene, Hamilton, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Montgomery, Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego, Otsego, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, St. Lawrence, Tioga, Tompkins, Ulster, Warren, and Washington.
Finally, the Western District of New York encompasses the following counties: Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, Erie, Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Niagara, Ontario, Orleans, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, Wyoming, and Yates. It also has jurisdiction over the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, and Elmira.
Any Federal Criminal Trial in any of the District Courts located in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont must be appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In a Federal Criminal case the defendant has the statutory right to appeal an unfavorable verdict or decision of the District Court; however, the decision of the Second Circuit is not appealable as of right to the United States Supreme Court; one must petition the U.S. Supreme Court for permission to appeal.
Criminal cases tried in the United States District Courts are appealed to the Circuit Courts of Appeals.
New York is located in the Second Circuit and all criminal cases tried in the Southern District, Eastern District, Northern District and Western District are appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
In total there are thirteen courts of appeals in the United States: the numbered circuits (One through Eleven), the D.C. Circuit, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
The United States is divided geographically with each Circuit having jurisdiction to hear appeals from certain States. The composition of each Circuit is as follows:
Federal Circuit: National Jurisdiction
- D.C. Circuit:District of Columbia
- 1st Circuit (Boston): Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island.
- 2nd Circuit (New York): Connecticut, New York, Vermont.
- 3rd Circuit (Philadelphia):Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, U.S. Virgin Islands
- 4th Circuit (Richmond): Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia.
- 5th Circuit (New Orleans): Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas.
- 6th Circuit (Cincinnati): Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee.
- 7th Circuit (Chicago): Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin.
- 8th Circuit (St. Louis): Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota.
- 9th Circuit (San Francisco): Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Washington.
- 10th Circuit (Denver): Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming.
- 11th Circuit (Atlanta): Alabama, Florida, Georgia.
The Appellate Process In Federal Criminal Cases
Just as in State courts, a Federal Appeal must begin with the filing of a Notice of Appeal. In Federal Criminal cases there are very brief and very strict time limitations for the filing of this document. It is crucial that an Appellate Attorney be consulted as early as possible after a Federal Criminal conviction.
The Notice of Appeal is a one-page document that puts both the trial court and the appellate court on notice that one of the parties intends to appeal the lower court’s decision or verdict. This one page notice also triggers the appellate court’s jurisdiction in that the appellate court, generally, will take no action on a case unless the Notice of Appeal has been filed first. There are important time limitations for the filing of this document and an experienced Federal Criminal Appeals attorney must be consulted right away so that important appellate rights can be protected.
Whether the Federal Criminal Appeal is from a verdict after trial or from a plea and sentencing, it is essential that the record made in the lower court be carefully and meticulously scrutinized by an experienced appellate attorney. The success or failure of any appellate argument starts with an ardent analysis – an earnest examination – an intense inspection of the record made in the trial court. The legal issues that will become the core of the appellate brief are initially culled through inspection and analysis of the trial record.
Analysis of the record and legal research are two processes that go hand in hand. The types of errors made in the trial court range from procedural to substantive, constitutional to evidentiary, judicial to prosecutorial. Once a legal issue is identified in the trial record, the pertinent constitutional, statutory and case law must be researched regarding that issue so that the most up to date law is applied and used in the brief for legal argument to the Circuit Court of Appeals.
The focal point of a Federal Criminal Appeal is the appellate brief, especially in criminal appeals where oral argument is not always granted, the brief becomes that much more important.
Crafting the appellate brief is the art of channeling the errors of the lower court, coaxing the pertinent law, and creating legal arguments that persuade the Circuit Court Judges to rule in the client’s favor.
In Federal Criminal Appeals each error of the lower court is treated independently and distilled into a separate point of law, allowing the Circuit Judges to focus on each error as a distinct basis for overturning the trial court’s decision.
Each point of law includes its own recitation of pertinent facts gleaned from the trial court record, an analysis of the applicable law, and a discussion and argument component explicating why the Circuit Court should find in favor of the client.
In some Federal Criminal Appeals the Circuit Court of Appeals will grant the attorneys time for oral argument.
Oral argument consists of the attorney standing before a panel of judges (in Federal Criminal Appeals it is usually three judges) and answering the judges questions about the legal arguments made in your brief and your opponents brief. This phase of a Federal Criminal Appeal requires highly intensive preparation starting long before the oral argument is scheduled. The questions by the judges can be on any topic – legal or factual. Therefore, it is necessary to be “ultra” prepared on the facts and law of the case you are arguing so that not only can you answer all of the judge questions, but answer them in a way that is favorable to the client’s position.
There are many views on the efficacy of oral argument: some Judges say that their minds are made up prior to oral argument and it is only the rare case where it will make a difference, others assert that oral argument is essential to the process. Whatever the Judge’s opinion, oral argument, in a Federal Criminal appeal, is the attorney’s last opportunity to persuade the judges prior to their decision.
The Circuit Court will not decide a case immediately after oral argument, but will publish a written opinion on the case explaining, usually in great detail, what they have decided and why. Each of these opinions is published in books called reporters and online (Westlaw and Lexis).
As stated earlier a decision from one of the Circuit Courts on a Federal Criminal Appeal is not appealable as of right to the United States Supreme Court. One must ask permission of the U.S. Supreme Court by way of a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari.
The statistics for success on such a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court are not favorable. The United States Supreme Court decides between 90 and 100 cases every year out of about 10,000 petitions that it receives. The Circuit Courts of Appeals are therefore, for many Federal Criminal Appeals, the de facto court of last resort.