Appellate Law

Avatar Legal handles court appointed appeals from judgments entered by California state courts. 

Amanda Knox and a Reflection on Appellate Systems

The recent successful appeal by Amanda Knox has captured headlines throughout the US. As an appellate attorney, what I find most interesting is how the Italian system differs from our own:

In Italy, both the prosecution and the defense can file an appeal. Here, the defense can always appeal and the appellate court must hear the appeal. However, the prosecution’s right to appeal is limited to only a few specific situations.

In Italy, the appeal allows the defendant a brand new trial, with all evidence and testimony up for review. The appeal has a jury made up of six people with at least high school degrees and two judges. In California, a panel of three appellate judges review the trial below. The purpose of the appeal is not to rehear the evidence presented at trial, but rather to ensure there were no prejudicial mistakes at trial. So the appellate judges typically give great deference to rulings by the trial court and factual findings by the jury. As a result, Italian appeals have a high reversal rate, around 50 percent of trials, whereas the California Court of Appeal reverses only around two percent of cases.

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How an Appeal Works

An appeal is a chance to challenge discrete mistakes made at the trial level.  It is not a second chance to do a new trial. 

if you are unhappy with your trial result because you think the jury just got it wrong, you appeal is unlikely to succeed.  The appellate court typically won't reweigh the evidence presented at trial.

However, if you feel you lost the case because the trial court made a bad ruling on evidence or applied the law incorrectly to the facts, then the issue may be appealable. 

For instance, if the trial court allowed your opponent to introduce a critical piece of evidence, say a “smoking gun” document that you believe should not have been admitted on a legal ground (such as failure to properly authenticate the document) then you can use an appeal to challenge the trial court’s decision to admit the document.  If you prevail on appeal, the appellate court would vacate the trial decision and could reverse it entirely or remand the case for a new trial.

The Appeal Process (from California Superior Court)

The California State Court Appellate Process:

  1. Notice of Appeal.  An appeal starts with the filing of a notice of appeal.  Usually this notice must be filed within 60 days of the entry of judgment being appealed.
  2. Designating the Record.  The petitioner (the party bringing the appeal) requests that the Superior Court prepares the trial transcript and clerk transcript for appeal. 
  3. Review of the Record.  The petitioner’s attorney will read the record looking for appealable errors by the trial court.
  4. Opening Brief.  The petitioner’s attorney will draft and file an opening brief laying out the facts established at trial and arguing the legal basis to vacate the judgment based on trial errors.
  5. Respondent’s Brief.  The respondent’s attorney (party defending the appeal) will draft and file a brief stating why the judgment should not be vacated.
  6. Reply Brief.  The petitioner’s attorney may draft and file a reply addressing any issues raised in the respondent’s brief.
  7. Oral Argument.  Counsel for both parties appear, in person, before the appellate court to argue for their respective positions.
  8. Opinion.  The appellate court will decide whether to affirm or reverse the trial court decision.  The decision comes in the form of a written opinion.
  9. Supreme Court.  The party who loses the appeal may choose to petition the Supreme Court to hear the matter.  The Supreme Court is not required to (and usually does not decide to) hear the matter.
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