Cases start out in the trial court. In the federal system, this is called the district court. Appeals from the trial court go to the court of appeals. From the court of appeals, cases can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
If you are convicted in the district court, you may appeal. The shape of the appeal will be strongly influenced by how you were convicted.
If you were convicted after a guilty plea, you may still appeal many of the issues in your case: for instance, if your trial lawyer challenged an initial search, you may ask the court of appeals to review the district court’s decision about the search. If the court of appeals finds the search was illegal, it will remand the case to the district court. Without the evidence from the search, the charges might be dropped, or you may be able to negotiate a better deal.
One of the first things your lawyer will look at is if your plea agreement contains a waiver of the right to appeal. This means that, as part of the bargain you made to settle the case, you agreed not to appeal your conviction. An appeal waiver makes it very hard to challenge on appeal the basis of your conviction by arguing, for instance, that the evidence against you was obtained in an illegal.
If you were convicted after trial, you can appeal the jury verdict. An appeal is not a chance to try to the case again. Instead, the appeal after a jury trial will focus on legal issues before and during trial. Your lawyer will get all the transcripts from the trial and comb them for errors—for instance, errors in admitting evidence.
In the appeal, you are not challenging what lawyers call the weight of the evidence—how persuasive the testimony and exhibits were. Instead, you will be challenging the conviction by asking whether the jury should have seen the evidence, if the judge should have given an instruction limiting how the evidence could be used, and similar “legal” issues.
The best issues on appeal challenge whether law enforcement and the trial court followed the rules and Constitution. Arguing that the jury came to the wrong decision is a weak argument.
In the district court, you appeared before a single judge. In the court of appeals, a panel of three judges will consider your case. The case will largely be determined by the briefs you're your lawyer and the government file. Briefs are written arguments about legal issues in your case.
If you are appealing a criminal conviction, you will get to file an opening brief. The government then files an answering brief, and your lawyer will then reply to the government’s brief. Sometimes before the court comes to a decision, your lawyer will appeal before the panel of three judges for oral argument.
Your lawyer will also file some of the documents that were filed at the district court so that the court of appeals can understand what happened in trial or when you made other challenges. Finally, transcripts of hearings or trial will be filed. Although the court of appeals will look at these documents and transcripts—what is called the record on appeal—they will be looking at it to see if the record supports your lawyer’s arguments about legal errors.
A notice of appeal must be filed in the district court within 14 days of the entry of judgment. Usually, the date of the judgment is the date of sentencing. It is very important that this be filed within two weeks—or you may lose your right to appeal.