An overview of the appellate process

An appeal is available if a litigant is dissatisfied with an outcome at the trial court level. In California, every litigant – except for the government in criminal cases – has a constitutional right to have the trial court proceedings reviewed by an appellate court.

The party seeking an appeal is called an "appellant," and the responding party is known as either the "respondent" or "appellee."

The appellate courts (Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) do not retry cases or hear new evidence. Rather, they review what occurred in the trial court to make sure that the proper law was applied and that the proceedings were fair. Each side presents written argument to the appellate court in a document called a "brief." Others who may be interested in a particular case may seek permission to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.

The arguments made in briefs vary. However, common grounds for an appeal include claims that the trial or underlying proceedings were conducted unfairly, or that the trial judge incorrectly applied the law. In rare instances, a party may claim that the law applied violates rights guaranteed in either the California Constitution or the United States Constitution.

After all briefs are received, an appeal is scheduled for oral argument by the Courts of Appeal or the Supreme Court. At oral argument (generally limited to 15 minutes per side), each attorney has a chance to present arguments to – and to answer questions posed by – the panel of Justices who will decide the case. Once the case is decided, the panel typically issues a written opinion, explaining its reasoning and directing an outcome which typically either affirms the trial court's actions, or reverses with instructions back to the lower court.

In California, appeals generally proceed initially to the Court of Appeals. A party dissatisfied with the decision of the Court of Appeal may seek to have his or her case reviewed again by the California Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court, however, has discretion to decide which cases it will take. Thus, review by the California Supreme Court is wholly discretionary and not guaranteed. In fact, the California Supreme Court denies review in all but a fraction of cases, taking only those which present questions raising important legal issues of widespread significance.

Where a party loses before the California Supreme Court – or loses before the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court has subsequently declined to review the case – he or she may seek review by the United States Supreme Court if the case involves a federal law or interpretation of the United States Constitution.

The importance or retaining a certified appellate specialist to handle your appeal

Jon R. Williams is a Certified Appellate Specialist (California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization). This means that the State Bar has independently certified his qualifications to handle complex appellate matters in California. The requirements for certification are rigorous. Indeed, less than 1% of lawyers admitted to practice in the State of California are certified specialists. A specialist must pass a written examination in their specialty field, demonstrate a high level of experience in that field, fulfill ongoing education requirements, and be favorably evaluated by other attorneys and judges familiar with their work.

As a Certified Appellate Specialist, Jon has the skill and experience to effectively evaluate appellate issues, assist trial counsel in making an advantageous appellate record, strategize and prepare post-trial motions, evaluate writ petitions and appeals, seek or avoid stays on appeal, formulate and draft successful appellate arguments, and present persuasive oral argument to appellate panels. Jon is also skilled at posturing appellate cases for subsequent California Supreme Court review.