How are State And Federal Appellate Courts Similar?

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Both state and federal appellate courts hear appeals from trial courts, reviewing the legal issues but not determining the factual issues. Federal courts hear cases in which the United States is a party as well as cases brought under federal law. State courts hear state law cases.

Here a court, there a court, everywhere a court-court. Between small claims and the highest court in the land, you'll find dozens of different courts with different names. But when you look more closely, they divide out neatly into categories: state courts and federal courts, trial courts and appellate courts. So, are state and federal appellate courts really totally different animals?

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Both state and federal appellate courts hear appeals from trial courts, reviewing the written records of the trial but never hearing evidence and determining the factual issues themselves.

Appellate Courts vs.Trial Courts

One way to categorize the many different courts in this country is to divide them into state and federal courts. State courts hear matters involving state law, while federal courts usually hear federal law.

The other big dividing line is between trial and appellate courts. Trial courts are usually the courts where cases begin, and they are the courts that hear evidence during a trial and decide the factual issues, often with a jury. Appellate courts hear appeals from trial courts, but they only review the record. No witnesses, no smoking guns or bloody sneakers, no juries. Appellate courts simply review the trial court proceedings to ensure that the law was correctly interpreted and applied.

Both state and federal courts of appeal are appellate courts. That is the main similarity between them. State courts of appeals hear appeals from decisions from trial courts in that state, while federal circuit courts of appeals hear appeals from district courts, the trial courts of the federal system.

Differences Between State and Federal Appellate Courts

The main difference between state and federal appellate courts involves the state/federal distinction. Each state has its own system of trial and appellate courts, usually with two levels of appeal in the state before a case that qualifies can apply for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For example, trial courts in California are called superior courts. Their decisions are appealed to the California courts of appeal, and those decisions can be appealed to the California Supreme Court. In appropriate cases, the attorneys can petition for a hearing before the United States Supreme Court.

The federal system is also in a pyramid shape. District courts are the trial courts that make up the base. Circuit courts are the first level of appeal. The nation is divided into 12 circuits, each with a circuit court. Each circuit court hears the appeals from district courts within its geographic boundaries. A 13th circuit court hears appeals from patent cases and other specialized matters. The second level of federal case appeal is to the Supreme Court, but the Court doesn't take every appeal. Of the some 7,000 requests to hear an appeal every year, the Court accepts between 100 and 150.

Types of Cases Heard by State and Federal Appellate Courts

Federal courts hear cases brought under federal law. Most of the cases are in one of these categories:

  • Cases in which the United States is a party
  • Cases involving federal law, including the U.S. Constitution, bankruptcy, copyright, patent and maritime laws
  • Cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction)

State courts hear cases brought under state law. Both bodies of law have criminal codes and civil codes, so federal appellate courts can hear federal criminal appeals as well as federal civil appeals. Similarly, state appellate courts hear civil and criminal cases brought under state law.


About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson,,, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.