When you appeal, you are asking a higher court to review the decision of a lower court. If you lose your case or are found guilty at the trial level, you can bring your case before the appellate court. In Illinois, the trial courts are called circuit courts. The next level is the Illinois court of appeals, which has five districts: Chicago, Elgin, Ottawa, Springfield and Mt. Vernon. The Chicago district has several divisions because of its size. The highest court is the Illinois Supreme Court.
Thousands of cases are appealed every year in Illinois. You can appeal both civil and criminal cases, but there are time limits, as well as limits on what issues you’re allowed to argue. The process and rules for filing an appeal are much different than those at the lower (trial) court level. Some attorneys handle only appeals; others do appeals along with trials and other cases.
The most important thing to know about an appeal is that it is not a new trial. You are not re-arguing your case. Rather, you are claiming that the outcome in your case was wrong because the lower court made a mistake.
You have 30 days after the final judgment to file a notice of appeal. You have to notify the other party that you are appealing and both sides have a short time to submit briefs. The brief is the most important part of your appeal. Although oral arguments are often scheduled (where the attorneys for each side present their arguments to the judges), the brief can make or break your case.
There is no jury at the appellate level. Instead, a panel of three judges reviews what happened at the trial level to determine whether there was an error. The panel reviews the transcript from the trial, as well as the briefs from each side.
Aside from the deadline, there are two major requirements for filing an appeal. First, you cannot appeal until a final decision has been made in your case. Usually, this means that the trial has ended and the judge or jury has decided against you. Sometimes you can appeal a decision earlier, such as when a motion to dismiss is denied, even though the case is still pending.
The second major requirement is that you need a basis for your appeal. This is the reason why you think the lower court’s decision should be overruled. Common arguments are that the judge made a mistake about the law, the trial was procedurally unfair and violated your rights, the evidence did not support the verdict, etc.
In a criminal case, you can appeal your sentence. Again, you have to show that a legal error was made, such as when a sentence is higher than the maximum allowed by law. In addition to a direct appeal in a criminal case you may be able to file a post-conviction petition, which allows additional grounds for overturning a conviction. For example, you can argue that there is new evidence or that you had ineffective assistance of counsel (your lawyer mishandled your case). If the appellate court agrees, you can get a new trial.
With criminal cases you can also file motions after the 30 days if new evidence has come to light. For example, if a witness, years later is saying they lied on the witness stand, you might be able to file an appeal or if new DNA evidence appears to clear the defendant, an appeal is possible. However, you can’t simply file an appeal after it’s too late because you don’t think the attorney did a good job or you are not happy with the result.
The panel of three judges deliberates and makes their decision. If they disagree, a vote will decide. There are a few possible outcomes. They can affirm the lower court’s decision, meaning the decision stands, or they may reverse, meaning the trial court’s decision is overruled and you have won your appeal. The appellate court also can remand the case, which means they are sending it back to the trial court to fix an error. Some cases are reversed and remanded.
If you disagree with the appellate court’s decision, you can try to appeal it the Supreme Court. Some cases can be appealed directly to the Supreme Court from the trial court level, but those are rare. The Supreme Court decides which cases to review. There is no guarantee. If the Supreme Court decides not to take your case, then the appellate court’s decision is final.
As a general rule, the decisions of a lower court are given a lot of weight. A higher court will hesitate to second-guess the lower court unless the error is substantial and not harmless. There are many cases, however, where an error is serious.
There are very specific rules and procedures for filing an appeal, so we almost always recommend hiring an attorney well versed in appeals to handle your case. Appeals are often based on complex areas of law, and your entire case may rest on the content and accuracy of the appellate brief. If you would like to talk to an Illinois appeals attorney and explore the possibility of appealing your case to a higher court, give us a call. The window of time for filing an appeal is extremely short.
Finally, while the state of Illinois has free lawyers for some criminal appeals, every attorney we know of with experience in this area of law charges by the hour. The total cost depends on how long the case will last.
If you have any questions about finding a lawyer in Illinois to file an appeal please contact us at any time. All calls are free and confidential. Please remember that time is usually of the essence in these cases.