Overview – Civil Appeals in San Diego

All cases begin in a trial court, and at some point, the case will end in the trial court. The case could be dismissed by the judge early in the litigation, or a final judgment could be entered after a full trial. But at some point, the procedings in the trial court will be concluded. At that point, a party unhappy with the result can appeal.
Simply put, appellate law involves handling cases on appeal. The best appellate attorneys, however, think of it more broadly and consider sophisticated legal analysis, strategy and issue identification – even at the trial level – to be part of their core function. Appeals are typically won or lost in the trial court. Failure to properly frame the issues during the trial can prevent you from reversing the decision on appeal. That is why it is so important to have a trial attorney who is experienced in appellate law.
Appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. Instead, appellate courts review what occurred in the trial court to see if the proper procedures were followed and the proper law was applied. Because of the limited nature of this review, the issues properly raised on appeal are significantly different from those that are raised at trial.

Standard of Review

The appellate court will usually defer to the trial court or jury on factual issues. However, the appellate court has the final word on what the law is. On issues of law -- for example, the interpretation of a statute or the Constitution -- the appellate court will not defer to the trial court but will instead independently decide the issue.
On an appeal after after a pre-trial dismissal -- for example, after a summary judgment motion or a demurrer -- the appellate court will usually review the materials and independently decide whether the case should have been dismissed or whether it should have been allowed to go to trial.
On an appeal from a judgment after a trial, the appellate court will reverse the judgment only if it finds the trial court committed legal errors that were prejudicial during the trial. Examples of such legal errors include the trial court giving erroneous jury instructions, erroneously admitting or excluding evidence, and failing to follow proper procedures. If the appellate court finds such legal errors, the Court will then determine whether these errors were prejudicial. A legal error is considered prejudicial only if there is some reasonable chance that it was likely to have affected the result in the case. Thus, minor legal errors are usually not grounds for a reversal.

The Appeal Process: Briefs

In a typical case, the parties will file a total of three briefs with the court.
The appellant begins with an opening brief. The appellant's opening brief explains the facts and procedural history of the case, and then explain why the appellate court should reverse.
The non-appealing party (usually called the "appellee" or "respondent") then files a responsive brief. In the brief, the appellee or respondent argues why the trial court reached the right result and why the appellate court should not reverse.

Finally, the appellant can file a reply brief. In this brief, the appellant argues why the respondent's claims are wrong. However, the appellant may not make new legal argument in the reply brief; the appellate may only "reply" to the respondent. Typically, appellate briefs are massive and dense documents. While a trial court typically imposes a page limit of 15 pages for briefs, on appeal, the page limit is 50 pages. What makes appellate briefs more challenging is that each fact used in the brief must be cited to directly in “the record,” which is all the documents in the trial court file which might be relevant on appeal. The record of a small case that has gone to trial may fill several banker’s boxes. Having to cite to the specific page and line number for each fact is a very time intensive process.

Similarly, each legal argument must cite directly to a previous Appellate Court or Supreme Court case. Appellate briefs are no place for an attorney’s opinion. The only valid authority in appellate court is precedent established by prior appellate and supreme courts.

The Appeal Process: Oral Argument

After the case is briefed, an appellate panel is assigned out of the larger pool of available appellate justices. After they have read the briefs and conducted their own research, they will calendar the matter for oral argument if one of the parties has requested it. Oral argument is usually the least important part of the process. By the time of oral argument, the justices will have read the briefs and thoroughly considered the issues. However, argument gives the justices a chance to clear up any questions they might have. Argument is typically brief, and few attorneys get very far without being interrupted by a justice who wants to quickly focus the attorney on a particular issue.

The Appeal Process: The Decision
Once oral argument is complete, the matter is submitted to the justices for a decision. Here in San Diego, the decision usually comes a few weeks after oral argument. The appellate panel will usually issue a written opinion explaining why it reached the decision that it did. If the appellate court deems it appropriate, the written opinion will be published in the official reports and will be binding authority for litigants in the future.

Time Required

The total time for an appeal varies widely from court to court, and to some extent, from case to case. Here in San Diego an appeal usually takes 12 to 15 months. After that, the decision is sent back down to the trial court for corrective action if any.
Whether you need an attorney to take your case to trial who can maximize your chances of success on appeal, or whether you're already looking to take your case through the appeal process, contact us right away to find out how to put us to work for you.
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