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Trials and Appeals

March 19, 2023

In the course of my college degree, I earned two Associate degrees accumulating credits which I transferred first to the University of Pittsburgh, and finally, to Robert Morris University.

In any college degree, there is a certain category of classes called ‘Electives’, meaning they are not required for a specific degree. They may or may not be required for different degrees. They may just be something of interest to a student. In my Associate’s degree studies, one of my electives had to do with the legal field and was conducted by a practicing attorney.

It was an interesting class and afforded me many opportunities to do what I enjoyed most throughout my college period. Argue. With classmates and with the instructor. Being a Perry Mason devotee from a very young age, trials and legal things have always been an interest. If I had better guidance when I was young, the law might have been my career path.

I’m not talking about heated discussion. I’m talking about ‘debate’ type discussions. Back and forth. Point/Counterpoint. Most of the discussions, papers, textbooks, assignments, etc. are lost to the years. However, one thing I took away from this law-related class and have held for all the years since had to do with appeals, namely contesting the results of a court result. In the last five or six years, appeals have constantly been in the news. What I learned in that class was a revelation at the time and it occurs to me that it may be just as surprising to many even today.

In order to appeal a decision, a decision must have been rendered. This would involve a court case, a judge, perhaps a jury, two parties to litigate their positions, and a decision finally being made. If you have spent any time watching a court proceeding, either live, as on Court TV, or in a fictional setting (i.e. Perry Mason, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “A Few Good Men”, etc.), you have some idea of what happens in a courtroom. Cases/charges are filed (indictment) and formally declared against someone (arraignment) and eventually a trial begins.

The prosecution presents a case using evidence (governed by strict rules) or witnesses, which the defense can examine. The prosecution rests. The defense presents its evidence (governed by strict rules) which the prosecution can examine. The defense rests. Closing statements are presented to the judge or jury. Someone (judge or jury depending on the type of trial) decides the case on the basis of the evidence presented.

Often the parties in a case are not satisfied with the decision. If the decision goes against the prosecution, for a criminal conviction there is no appeal. This prevents a concept known as double jeopardy. The prosecution can appeal a decision in a civil case. The ‘government’ cannot keep prosecuting the same offense until it gets a satisfactory decision. If the decision goes against the defendant, there is a right to appeal. Such appeals are interesting for what they are NOT (in my opinion).

An appeal is when someone who loses a case in a trial court asks a higher court (the appellate court) to review the trial court’s decision. In almost all cases, the appellate court ONLY looks at two things:

  • Whether a LEGAL mistake was made in the trial court; AND
  • Whether this mistake changed the final decision (called the “judgment”) in the case.

An appeal is NOT:

  • A new trial with witnesses or a jury;
  • A chance to go to court and present your case all over again in front of a different judge
  • A chance to present new evidence or new witnesses.

What made this interesting again, recently, is news of several appeals by Donald Trump, all of which he lost.

There are certainly others who had negative outcomes in court and appealed. Mr. Trump is noted here only because he has been involved in so many recently and because he is very noisy about negative outcomes and lawsuits.

Appeals are NOT new trials/retrials with new evidence and new witnesses. They are reviews of the original trial. Outcomes can change if it is found that there were legal mistakes that affected the outcome. Did the party appealing have ineffective counsel? Were there problems with the evidence presented? (Was it suppressed, etc.); Did this problem have a material effect on the outcome? Did the judge make a mistake in the application of law or instruction to the jury? Etc.

The right of appeal is important. It is also freighted with requirements, obstacles, expenses, and difficulties. That is probably a good thing. If it were not so, courts would be clogged with never-ending litigation that choked justice with weeds of claims and counterclaims assuring nothing ever got done.

It is SO common these days when a court decision is rendered that the losing party immediately signals intent to appeal. It is comforting to know that this does not mean a whole new trial, witnesses, evidence, etc. Effectively unlimited fresh bites at the ‘apple’. There is a right to appeal. And a right way to appeal. Justice often seems slow. Even glacial. But there are rules to keep the whole thing moving to an ultimate conclusion.

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