Appealing to a higher power in Pennsylvania

Because judges and juries are fallible, Pennsylvania law gives citizens ample appeal rights in both civil and criminal proceedings. But specific procedures, rules and timetables must be followed in order to fully preserve those rights.

Appealing from the Court of Common Pleas

In Pennsylvania, the Court of Common Pleas - the trial court system in each county - is the go-to bench for both civil and criminal proceedings. Most appeals to higher courts begin here.

The starting point for an appeal from the Court of Common Pleas begins where that court's decision ends -- namely with a final order from the court.

Since the Court of Common Pleas hears all kinds of cases, those final orders could come in various forms: a sentencing order in a criminal case; a custody order or dependency finding in a family law case; or a monetary judgment in a civil case.

And with that final order, the clock on your appeal rights begins to tick. To preserve your appeal rights, you have 30 days to file a notice of appeal.

Navigating the appeals process

In an appeal, typically you must request and obtain the full transcript of all hearings and court proceedings on your case, copies of the judge's final order, any other work of record, and you must also file a concise statement of the matters of complaint you are appealing - the legal flaws of the final order as you see them.

Despite movie depictions of lawyers giving impassioned oral arguments, the appeal process is almost completely a matter of paperwork. As such, your appeal notice must be sharply written, as matters not preserved for appellate review are waived.

Fast-tracking certain appeals

Some appeals require immediate attention, particularly those dealing with the custody or dependency of children. When time is of the essence, an appeal can be fast-tracked.

Typically, appellate courts will fast-track cases involving children. Courts recognize that a child's welfare is of utmost importance and give priority to appeals challenging decisions affecting children.

Therefore, final orders regarding child custody, delinquency, children and youth agency rulings, foster home transfers, and neglect or physical abuse cases are all eligible to be fast-tracked.

The other side of an appeal

It only takes one side to initiate the appeal process, but other parties have every right to argue their side in any appeal. These responding parties can be district attorney's offices, children and youth agencies or the opposing side in a civil case. They are given notice of the appeal and adequate time to respond in writing to counter or refute the arguments in the original appeal.

Often this touches off a back-and-forth of briefs - written legal arguments - between the parties from the original case. Should any case become the subject of an appeal, a solid brief is critical.

Why appeals are so important

The impact of some appeals can echo far beyond the original case. These appeals hold the potential to change the law of the land. This sets legal precedent - an appellate case can uncover far more than a flaw in one judge's order, and correct a systemic flaw that needs to be righted to benefit all.

In Pennsylvania, we entrust this judicial review to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Both boast a bench of judges who review appeals, weigh existing state law and statutes, and consider written and oral arguments from attorneys representing the parties. Then the judges meet in private to discuss, and ultimately write opinions outlining their decisions and, sometimes, their dissent on every appeal decision.

A simple majority of voting appellate judges decides each case, with a written ruling making the decision public. Appellate courts can uphold the decision of the trial court; reverse the decision; reverse and remand it back to the trial court for further proceedings; or remand for a missed step.

Certain appellate decisions may be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but most reviews by our state's highest court are neither automatic nor guaranteed. Instead, in those instances, the high court grants its review on only a limited number of cases. Often, those cases present a question of first impression, a constitutional question, or a question of such public importance that it must be resolved definitively by Pennsylvania's highest court.

Specialized legal representation can help you navigate your appeal and frame your brief-- and possibly-change the law for all.

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