The appellate court and the circuit court are two entirely different kinds of courts in the US court system. The difference between them is easy to understand and remember. A circuit court is the court where hearings and trials are held. The appellate court is a court of appeal that reviews the record from the circuit court for error.
The circuit court is the kind of court where cases get tried. Witnesses testify under oath; lawyers make passionate closing arguments; jurors deliberate and agree on verdicts. The circuit court is the original people’s court; it is the closest most US residents will ever get to the justice system.
The kind of cases that a circuit court hears can vary from one circuit to another. In general, a circuit court handles criminal felony cases, civil cases where damages exceed the limit for small claims court, and domestic relations, or family law cases.
During a trial in the circuit court, the lawyers for each party make numerous motions for the judge to consider. Each side objects to the judge’s decision on the various motions that don’t go their way. In so doing, each side preserves its right, should it lose the case, to ask the appellate court to review whether the judge made the right decision on each motion. This process is known as “preserving the record on appeal.” After the case ends, the party that lost in circuit court still has a chance to win – in the appellate court.
Appellate court is the kind of court where lawyers argue among themselves about what happened at the trial in circuit court and why the circuit court decision should or should not stand. No one testifies in appellate court; no juries deliberate. Attorneys make passionate arguments, but the arguments center around the intricacies of the law, not around the people whose lives will be changed by the outcome of the case.
Before argument, each side prepares a memorandum, or “brief,” that details specific reasons why the Circuit Court opinion or verdict should not be allowed to stand. In the brief, the appellant describes the motions and objections that were made on her behalf in the Circuit Court and why the court was mistaken in not ruling in her favor. During argument, the appellant’s attorney summarizes the brief and answers questions from the appellate court justices.
After argument, the appellate court justices and their law clerks go back to their chambers and study the issues raised and legal authority cited by both sides. After a thorough review that can take months to accomplish, the appellate court publishes its decision, which may merely affirm the circuit court outcome without further comment. The appellate court can also overturn the circuit court outcome and order a new trial of the case, or overturn the circuit court outcome in a way that does not require a new trial.
The difference between an appellate court and a circuit court is simple and basic. The appellate court reviews what happens in the circuit court. The circuit court is the original people’s court – the court where the everyday Americans go to get access to justice.