What does it mean when a court “affirms,” “vacates,” or “remands” a case?

A court of appeals hears cases that have first appeared in a state or federal trial court.  In most cases, a court of appeals will issue one of three different possible responses after it hears a case: it may “affirm,” “vacate” or “reverse,” or “remand” the case.  Usually, the court of appeals will release a written opinion that explains whether it is affirming, vacating or reversing, and/or remanding the case, and the reasoning the court used to reach its conclusion.

When an appeals court “affirms” a lower court’s verdict, it is agreeing with the lower court.  Even if the court of appeals uses different reasoning than the trial judge did to come to this conclusion, the court will state that it affirms the lower court if its final decision matches the trial court’s decision.  Often, an appeals court will “affirm” a lower court’s decision in cases where the standard of review limits the depth of the appeals court’s scrutiny of the case.  For instance, an appeals court that is reviewing a case to ensure that the trial court’s decision is not “clearly erroneous” will affirm the lower court if that court did not make an obvious mistake in applying the law, even if the judges sitting on the appeals court would personally have reached a different decision if they were the judges at trial.  The standard of review depends on the type of case or issue the trial court is asked to consider.

If the appeals court finds that the lower court did not correctly apply the law to the facts of the case, or if the appeals court responds to a question of law that has not yet been settled, the court may “vacate” or “reverse” the trial court’s decision.  Often, an appeals court will “reverse and remand” a decision.  In both cases, the appeals court is sending the case back to the trial court to be dealt with according to the explanation of the law laid out in the appeals court’s written opinion.

If an appeals court disagrees with the trial court’s entire decision, it will “vacate” or “reverse in full.”  A case in which the appeals court only disagrees with part of the trial court’s verdict, however, will be “reversed in part” or “remanded with instructions.”  These cases are sent back for the trial court to fix or re-hear only a specific issue or issues involved with the case, instead of hearing the entire case again or dismissing the entire case.  For instance, in a personal injury case, the court of appeals may send the case back to the trial court only to decide whether a breach of duty occurred or to calculate an award of money damages.

A case that is reversed and remanded “in part” or “with instructions” usually contains an error of reasoning in only one part of the case.  Since the appeals court finds the rest of the case sound, it requires the trial court to look twice only at the parts of the case that do not fit the requirements of state or federal law, instead of forcing the court and the parties to spend additional time and money re-trying the entire case.

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