Every day, judges and juries make decisions in criminal, family and civil cases in Pennsylvania and every other state in the nation. There are also administrative hearings, often stemming from the provision of government-funded benefits or centering around issues such as immigration, in which decisions are made by judges who weigh arguments presented by either side.
While the matters addressed in these different forums may differ, there is one common element: decisions made can generally be appealed.
What is an appeal?
The responsibility falls on prosecutors (in a criminal matter) or a plaintiff (in a civil matter) to prove their case. Ultimately, a judge or jury has to decide whether prosecutors or a plaintiff adequately proved their case. The announcement of the deciding party’s findings is called a verdict. Criminal sentencing or the awarding of a settlement in a civil case follows soon thereafter as necessary.
Both verdicts and settlements are appealable, but only under certain circumstances. For example, both plaintiffs and defendants can appeal a civil case; however, only a defendant can do so in criminal cases. Also, while a criminal defendant may be afforded an automatic right of appeal in a murder case, civil plaintiffs or defendants may need to document a material error in their case as a legal basis for filing an appeal.
The appeals process most commonly involves a case’s outcome being reviewed by a higher court than the one that originally rendered the original verdict.
There are three courts of appeal in Pennsylvania:
- The Superior Court
- The Commonwealth Court
- The Supreme Court
While cases originally tried in the state’s Courts of Common Pleas can be appealed to the latter two courts listed, virtually all civil matters, such as personal injury and family law matters, end up being appealed to the Superior Court.
Certain legal matters can be appealed through the federal court system as well.
How the civil appeals process works
Pennsylvania plaintiffs or defendants wishing to file an appeal generally have a window of 10 days to take care of post-trial motions after a judge or jury renders an adverse trial verdict. There is then a 30-day window for a plaintiff or defendant to file a notice of appeal.
The civil appeals process in Pennsylvania can take several months to adjudicate after the initial filing of an appeal. Some of the following may occur during that time frame:
- The Superior Court establishes a 40-day briefing schedule in which you outline in a filing why you’re pursuing an appeal
- The respondent (defendant) receives a 30-day period to file a brief responding to yours
- The Court gives you 14 days to reply to the defendant’s brief
- Oral arguments are scheduled
Pennsylvania appellate courts may take several months to enter a decision in appealed civil cases, so it’s not uncommon for these legal matters to go undecided for three-quarters of a year or more.
Pursuing an appeal is much different from trying a case on a first pass. Parties who opt to appeal their case must identify instances where their legal rights were violated, or legal processes or court rules weren’t adhered to. These technicalities often hold parties back from requesting further reviews of their cases by higher courts, leading to adverse outcomes.