The Appellate Process

May 5, 2015

“I’m taking this case to the Supreme Court” are words I hear every once in a while, although I have not yet had a case which got to that august place. Regardless, understanding the appellate process helps anyone who is involved with a lawsuit.

Appeals come when a case is over, mostly. (Interlocutory appeals, which are called special action petitions in the Arizona state system, exist. However, they only succeed when the appealing party can demonstrate that bad things will happen if the appellate court does not straighten out the trial court before the case ends.) The case may end after a trial, or by way of a motion of one sort or another. Regardless, the appeal comes when the trial says, formally, “we’re done here.”

Appellate process is very strict. Deadlines exist everywhere in the law, but almost all of them can be excused for good cause. Miss the deadline? SOL.

Motions for a new trial, directed to the trial court, can extend the appeal deadline. Here, too, however, deadlines are strictly applied, as are technical requirements about what the motion must say.

In our system the trial courts decide the facts. In many cases credibility may be an issue, and it’s for the judge or jury—if there is one—to decide who told the truth. Even where credibility is not an issue, facts must still be determined from the evidence—testimony, documents, and objects—which are part of the record.

Because the facts get determined in the trial court, appeals do not provide a second chance to argue about the facts. Instead, appellate courts must deal with the facts as they have been determined, unless the trial court has committed “clear error.” So, suppose you said the light was red. Your opponent said it was green. The court agreed with her, and the color of the light mattered. An appeal will not help you.

Basically, appellate courts are charged with two tasks: (1) Making sure the trial court followed the rules properly; and (2) Properly applying the law to the facts, as they were decided by the trial court. On the first point, there are process rules, and evidentiary rules. Trial courts must follow them. If the rules have not been followed, and if a breach affected the outcome, the appellate court must send the matter back to the trial court for another go around. (In Arizona, party who prevails on appeal gets to have a new judge in the trial court.)

On the second point, courts apply law to facts. Trial courts must follow the law as it has been written in appellate court decisions. (Lower appellate courts must follow law set forth in decisions from higher courts.) Trial courts do not always follow the law. Further, and more often, the law may not be clear, or a decision may not quite fit the facts. Regardless, appellate courts exist to review those issues.

The appellate process is plenty formal, starting with the referenced “no excuses” deadline. Written briefs get prepared and filed. There are rules about contents, length, font size, margins, and even a rule about the color of the brief cover.

Oral argument—a chance to appear before the judges to argue and answer questions—may follow. Oral argument is for a set number of minutes, with a timer. There may be opportunities for a touch of levity here and there, but the process is very serious at its core.

A written opinion resolves the case on appeal. Many are published, and they form the basis for our common law. Some are not, and those have limited value as authorities in future cases.

[Note: I have handled 25+ appeals. I’m available to provide advice about appeals, and to handle them.]

Leave a Reply