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Appellate Procedure Overview

Iowa has two appellate courts, the Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals. The supreme court is the highest court in our state judicial system and its decisions are binding on all other Iowa state courts. The Iowa Court of Appeals hears cases that are assigned to it by the Supreme Court.
At the appellate level, the court does not conduct trials or hear new evidence, but rather it determines whether legal errors were committed in the rendering of the lower court’s judgment or order.  The appellate court can affirm—uphold the decision or order of the lower court, reverse—set aside the decision or order, or remand—send the case back to the lower court with instructions, including instructions to hold a new trial.

A party does not always have the right to appeal.  In some cases, for example, those involving a simple misdemeanor crime or a small claims action, the party must seek permission from the supreme court to file an appeal. Additionally, in limited circumstances, a party may seek an early appeal, or an appeal in advance of final judgment, by obtaining permission from the supreme court.

Notice of Appeal

Generally, a party must file a Notice of Appeal within thirty days of the filing of the challenged judgment or order. The notice is filed with the clerk of court in the county where the district court order was entered.  

Preparation of the Appeal

Following the filing of the notice of appeal, the parties must comply with a variety of rules contained in the Iowa Rules of Appellate Procedure. The party filing the notice of appeal is generally called the appellant.  The opposing party in the case is usually called the appellee.  The appellee may file a notice of cross-appeal if also dissatisfied with the final judgment. 

Order Transcripts and Docket Appeal

In a typical case, the appellant orders the relevant and necessary transcripts of the prior proceedings from the court reporter, and files a certificate with the supreme court clerk stating that the transcripts have been ordered. The appellant will then have a certain number of days, depending on the type of case, to pay a $50 docketing fee. This fee may be waived in certain circumstances. The payment of the docketing fee triggers subsequent filing deadlines. 

Appellate Briefs and Appendix

The parties are required to file briefs, which are written documents setting forth the facts, a party’s legal arguments, and the relief sought from the appellate court. The filing deadlines for briefs vary depending upon the type of case. The parties must also include the portions of the district court record that are referred to in their briefs in an appendix. The appendix is a mini-record of the trial court proceedings containing those parts of the transcript, trial court papers, and exhibits most relevant to the issues raised on appeal. The appellant generally prepares and files the appendix on behalf of the parties. In their briefs, the parties may request to make an oral argument before the court.  Following the filing of the briefs, the appellant requests the transmission of the district court record to the supreme court clerk, if not already transmitted.

Case Preparation Time

The time required for the preparation of a typical case, from the filing of the notice of appeal to the filing of final briefs, appendix, and the request for the transmission of the record, is about five or six months.  Court rules allow for an expedited process for certain types of cases, such as child in need of assistance and termination of parental rights. 

Case Screening

One a case file is ready it will be forwarded to staff of research attorneys who will prepare summaries of each case and make recommendations concerning whether a case is appropriate for retention by the supreme court or transfer to the court of appeals.  A panel of three supreme court justices makes the routing final decision, which is generally based upon the types of issues raised in the case. 

Submission of the Case

Each court sets its own case submission schedule.  In some cases, parties are granted an opportunity to address the court, a process known as oral argument. During oral arguments lawyers have a brief period of time to summarize their legal arguments before the court and to answer questions asked by justices or judges. Both courts have complete discretion whether or not to grant oral argument and decide many cases without oral argument.  

The Opinion

After a case is submitted or after oral arguments, the justices or judges will discuss in private conference, the legal issues presented in the case. Later, the justice or judge who has been given the assignment of writing the court’s opinion (written ruling) will prepare a draft. The opinion writer circulates copies of the draft opinion to the other members of the court who may comment on the draft. A justice or judge who disagrees with the opinion may write a dissent. A justice or judge who agrees with the result, but not necessarily for the same reasons, may draft a concurrence. 

Rehearing and Further Review

A party dissatisfied with a decision may file a petition for rehearing asking the court which heard the case to reconsider its decision. Rehearing is rarely granted.

After an opinion is filed by the court of appeals, the parties may seek further review by the supreme court. This procedure is commenced by filing an application for further review by following the applicable rules of appellate procedure. The supreme court as a whole decides whether to grant or deny the application.

Appeals to the U. S. Supreme Court

The Iowa Supreme Court is the court of last resort in the Iowa court system, and for the most part, its decisions are final. However, if a case involves a federal question, a party may appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court has discretion to decide whether or not it will hear an appeal.

Iowa Courts Online

You can see the names of the documents filed in appellate court cases using Iowa Courts Online here. Click on the “Appellate Court Case Search” link and start a search using the case number (“Appellate Docket Number”) or the name of one of the parties. When you find the case, click on the blue “Docket No.” link to find the case summary. From the horizontal menu, take the "Docket" link to find the documents filed in the case. The documents are not downloadable from Iowa Courts Online.  Documents can be obtained only at the Supreme Court Clerk of Court office in Des Moines.  Information about confidential cases such as child in need of assistance and mental health cases is not available using Iowa Courts Online.

Common Legal Terms

Explore our legal glossary in both English and Spanish to better understand commonly used legal terms in the judicial system here.

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