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How Do Trial Courts And Appellate Courts Differ?

How Do Trial Courts And Appellate Courts Differ?

A court is a court is a court, right? No. While appellate courts are rarely featured in movies (except for a few cases on the United States Supreme Court), and there are numerous movies and shows on trial court proceedings, there is a vast difference in state and federal courts between trial courts and appellate courts. It is key to understand this if you are or will be in litigation as each type of court serves a different function. This blog explains the differences between the Indiana trial courts, the Indiana Court of Appeals, and the Indiana Supreme Court.1

There are two types of cases that are heard in Indiana trial courts. The fist are civil cases, with a significant number of these cases being domestic (divorce or paternity). The second are criminal cases. In certain civil cases, the case is decided by a jury, such as a tort case. A classic example of a tort case is an auto accident. In other types of cases, such as a divorce case, they are tried to the judge (which is called “being tried to the bench”) decides the case. Most civil cases do not have a constitutional right to he heard by a jury.

In felony criminal cases, the defendant has the right to be tried by a jury. No matter the result is a ruling by a trial court judge or decision by a jury. If a party does not agree with the decision (he or she loses her civil trial or is convicted in a criminal case), he or she (or a company) has thirty (30) days to appeal from the judgment. The exception is with criminal cases where the party must appeal within thirty (30) days of sentencing.2

In almost all cases, a party losing a civil case or being criminally convicted requires a challenge to same to be filed in the Indiana Court of Appeals. Every criminal or civil litigant has the right to have their appeal heard by the Indiana Court of Appeals.3 However, the three (3) judges who decide any case lodged in the Indiana Court of Appeals do not have the parties come in the Court of Appeals’ courtroom located in the Indiana Statehouse and argue the merits of their case. The only time the judges on the Court of Appeals or justices on the Indiana Supreme Court use their respective court rooms in deciding cases is if they want to hear argument about the briefs that are filed in an appeal before the Court.4

The Indiana Court of Appeals reviews the brief filed by an appellant (a document that can be about 30 pages long telling the story of the case and identifying what errors the appellate believes the trial court made) based on the record and appendix filed with the Appellant’s Brief. The record is the transcript (the typed word-for-word testimony at trial) and the exhibits. This is supplemented with other necessary materials by the appellate in an “appendix” it files with the trial court. An appendix may have orders, memorandums, or other pleadings, motions or papers filed in the trial court that the appellant believes will help the Court of Appeals to identify or assist it in deciding if an error was made. With respect to errors of fact, such as a trial court believing one party over another, the Court of Appeals gives great deference to a trial court judge’s ability to assess the credibility of a live witness.5 The Court of Appeals cannot reweigh this based on the typed transcript. The other type of error the Court of Appeals may be presented with in an appellant’s brief is an error of law. This is where the trial court applies the wrong law or legal analysis. The Court of Appeals provides no deference to the trial court and reviews this de novo (with means it gives the trial court no deference). When completed with review, the Court of Appeal issues a written opinion and may affirm the trial court, which means its decision stands (unless reversed by the Supreme Court). The Court of Appeals may reverse the trial court (unless reversed by the Supreme Court). Lastly, the Court of Appeals may affirm in part and reverse in part the trial court (unless reversed by the Supreme Court). That typically ends the appellate process. The takeaway is the Court of Appeals focuses on alleged errors made by the trial court and, if made, determines if they should be reversed.

A party losing in the Court of Appeals may ask the Indiana Supreme Court to take their case. They have forty-five (45) days from the date of the Court of Appeals’ decision to file their Petition to Transfer and pay the requisite filing fee.6 The Supreme Court has absolute discretion in whether is accepts transfer, which, if denied, means the Court of Appeals’ decision stands. It is important to note even if the Supreme Court may not agree with the Court of Appeals, it still may not grant transfer. The Supreme Court can correct errors presented to it if it elects to do so, but it focuses on the greater policies7 a given case presented to it may represent or if there are conflicts between different judges’ decisions on the Court of Appeals that need to be reconciled. These are the cases the Supreme Court is likely to take.

In summary, Indiana’s trial courts (circuit and superior courts) located in all of Indiana’s ninety-two (92) counties, determines/decides all criminal and civil matters that are in dispute in Indiana. If a litigant loses or is criminally convicted, they have the right to appeal this decision to the Indiana Court of Appeals who then focus on correcting errors made in in trial courts. If the errors meet the requisite standard, the Court of Appeals can reverse. No trial occurs in the Indiana Court of Appeals. The case is decided on the Appellant’s brief, record, and appendix.8 The Indiana Supreme Court largely focuses on cases of important public policy or where there are disputes in the Indiana Court of Appeals’ decisions.

Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates handle appeals of all types in the Indiana Court of Appeals and Indiana Supreme Court. Perhaps we are a fit to be your appellate advocate. This blog is written by Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. attorneys. This blog is not meant as legal advice or a solicitation for legal services. This is an advertisement.


  1. Federal trial courts and appellate courts are beyond the scope of this blog. However, the purpose and functions of these courts generally track Indiana trial and appellate courts.
  2. In most felony cases, sentencing is not carried out on the same day as the “guilty” finding is made by the jury (or judge in some instances).
  3. By court rule, there are a few types of cases that go directly to the Indiana Supreme Court. This exception is beyond the scope of this blog.
  4. Oral arguments in the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court are rare.
  5. This means body language, speech pattern, and the like that the trial judge considers in determining their credibility. The Court of Appeals cannot determine this from a transcript.
  6. The losing party may first seek the Court of Appeals to rehear the case within thirty (30) days, but this is rare and beyond the scope of this blog.
  7. For a case that was lost in the trial court, Court of Appeals, and transferred to the Indiana Supreme Court and decided on policy grounds the Reader could review the Court of Appeals and Indiana Supreme Court’s case in MacLafferty v. MacLafferty, 829 N.E.2d 938 (Ind.2005). The Supreme Court decided the policy of how long litigants have to wait to move to modify child support. Thus, this case made law applicable to future cases and was more significant than the case itself for this litigant.
  8. The other party, the appellee, can also file a brief in the Indiana Court of Appeals or Indiana Supreme Court.
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Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., is a law firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. We serve clients in six core practice areas: family lawappellate practicefirearms lawgeneral practicepersonal injury and criminal law.

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Based in Indianapolis and founded in 1995, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. is a niche law firm focused on successfully dealing with the complexities of divorce, high-conflict child custody and family law. Known for their ability to solve extremely complex situations with high quality work and responsiveness, Ciyou & Dixon will guide you every step of the way. The family law attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. will help you precisely identify your objectives and the means to reach your desired result. In addition, this practice focus is augmented by the firm's other three core areas, namely appellate advocacy, civil practice, and firearms law. Life is uncertain. Be certain of your counselSM.

Indianapolis Divorce Attorneys, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. of Indianapolis, Indiana, offers legal services for Indianapolis, Zionsville, Noblesville, Carmel, Avon, Anderson, Danville, Greenwood, Brownsburg, Geist, Fortville, McCordsville, Muncie, Greenfield, Westfield, Fort Wayne, Fishers, Bloomington, Lafayette, Marion County, Hamilton County, Hendricks County, Allen County, Delaware County, Morgan County, Hendricks County, Boone County, Vigo County, Johnson County, Hancock County, and Tippecanoe County, Indiana.