Differences between Trial and Appellate Courts

daleyThere are three major differences between trial courts and appellate courts: (1) witnesses and exhibits, (2) judges, and (3) juries.

Witnesses and Exhibits

A trial court is the court where a case starts. In the trial court, both sides present evidence to show their version of what happened. Most of the evidence presented in the trial court comes from witnesses and exhibits, which are items and documents connected to the case. However, in the appellate courts, there are no witnesses, and the only evidence that can be presented is that which was introduced in the trial court.


The second difference between the two courts is the judges. In trial courts, there is one judge in the courtroom. That judge decides what evidence can and cannot be used and often decides the outcome of the case. In Michigan, appeals are decided by more than one judge. In the Michigan Court of Appeals, three judges hear the case, while in the Michigan Supreme Court, there are nine judges (called justices) that hear each case.


The last major difference between the trial courts and the appellate courts is the role of the jury. A jury is sometimes used in trial courts to help decide the case. In a criminal trial, the jury decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty. In a civil trial, the jury decides whether a person is liable (legally responsible for damages) or not liable. However, there is no jury in the appellate courts. Appellate judges determine the outcome of all appeals.

A big misunderstanding about the appellate courts is that they simply rehear the case over again. The truth is that appellate courts do not rehear the facts of the case. Appellate courts focus on questions of law, not on questions of facts like the trial courts. The appellate judges want to know whether the law was applied accurately. An appellate court will overrule a trial court decision only if an important legal error was made in the trial court. In some cases, the appellate court judges might believe the outcome of the trial court should have been different, but if no legal errors were made, they will not overrule the lower court. The appellate judges make their decisions based only on legal arguments of how the law should be applied and interpreted.

Karen M. Daley is an attorney in our Livonia office and is the head of the Firm’s appellate practice group. She concentrates her practice on appellate law, municipal law, and probate law. She may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or kdaley@cmda-law.com.