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An appeal is available if a party is dissatisfied with the outcome at the trial level. Our court system provides every litigant — except for the government in criminal cases — with the right to have the trial court proceedings reviewed by an appellate court.
The party seeking an appeal is called an "appellant," and the responding party is known as an "appellee."
The appellate courts (Appeals Court and Supreme Judicial Court) don't retry cases or hear new evidence. They review what happened in the trial court to make sure that the proper law was applied and that the proceedings were fair. Each side presents a written argument to the appellate court in a document called a "brief." Others who may be interested in a particular case may seek permission to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.
The arguments made in briefs vary. However, common grounds for an appeal include claims that the trial was conducted unfairly or that the trial judge incorrectly applied the applicable law. In rare instances, a party may claim that the law that was applied violates the United States or Massachusetts constitutions.
After all briefs are received, a case is scheduled for oral argument by the Appeals Court or the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). At oral argument, which generally lasts 15 minutes per side, each attorney has a chance to present arguments directly to the Justices who will be deciding the case. The Justices usually ask the lawyers questions.
In Massachusetts, appeals first proceed to the Appeals Court, with the exception of first degree murder convictions, which proceed directly to the SJC. A party that is unhappy with the Appeals Court's decision may seek to have a case reviewed again by the SJC.
Additionally, the SJC has discretion to transfer cases directly from the Appeals Court before they have been argued there. Such transfers can be made at a party's request or on the court's own initiative. This process minimizes the number of cases that must be decided by both the Appeals Court and the SJC.
Overall, the SJC and the Appeals Court agree with, or affirm, trial court decisions about 80% of the time — in about 15% of cases, the appellate court reverses the trial court. In the remaining 5% of cases, some other result is reached, such as affirming one part of the case and reversing another part.
A party that loses before the SJC, or loses before the Appeals Court if the SJC has declined to review the case, may seek review by the United States Supreme Court if the case involves a federal law or interpretation of the United States Constitution.