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Civil Appeals Process: Parties, Briefs & Oral Arguments

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  • 0:06 Civil Appeals Process
  • 2:14 Sweatt V. Painter (1950)
  • 4:43 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

The civil appeals process allows for a losing party to a lawsuit to request a higher court to review the decision to determine whether legal errors were made during the original trial.

The Civil Appeals Process

Let's face it; some court cases end with one party feeling as though the decision made by the court just wasn't fair. One of the great things about the court system is that it allows a losing party to have their case reviewed by a higher court.

This is known as an appeal and is a request to a higher court, generally federal court, to review the decision made in a lower court to determine whether any legal errors were made during the original trial. The appellant is the party filing the appeal, regardless of whether they were the plaintiff or the defendant in the original trial. The first thing the appellant must do is file an appeal with the higher court.

This is done by writing a brief, or an argument expressing the legal errors he felt were made in the original trial. Appeals are not always granted. The brief is actually reviewed by a panel of three judges. The appellee, or the party who prevailed in the original trial, also submits a brief to persuade the judges that the original decision should stand. Most appeals are not decided solely on the contents of each brief. The judges usually request that both parties convene to discuss the case.

These oral arguments are presented by both sides and generally last about 15 minutes each. The judges do not hear evidence or even re-try the case based on case facts; they simply decide whether the lower court's decision has legal merit.

It is important to note that an appellate court decision is final unless one of two things happen:

  • The case is remanded back to lower court for re-trial
  • The decision of the appellate court is appealed in U.S. Supreme Court

A case that is moved to U.S. Supreme Court must accompany a writ of certiorari, or a written request to the highest court to review the appeals court decision. There are few cases where a writ of certiorari is granted. For the writ to be granted, the legal error must be so gross that it requires serious consideration.

Let's review a landmark case to further demonstrate the civil appeals process.

Sweatt v. Painter (1950)

In the original case, Herman Marion Sweatt, a black man from Texas, sought admission to the University of Texas School of Law. His application was denied based on an antiquated law that barred admission to the law school based on skin color. In fact, at the time, no Texas school would admit prospective black students.

Unaccepting of this decision, Sweatt filed a civil lawsuit against the then university president, Theophilus Painter, in state court. The state court judge ruled in favor of Painter and the University of Texas, leaving Sweatt with little recourse.

Let's keep in mind that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not in existence yet. Sweatt was using the 'separate but equal' doctrine that was set by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Sweatt continued his argument against the university and its president for months. During that time, a new law school opened that allowed for the admission of black students.

The problem with the new school is that it didn't offer nearly the same programs or support for students. In fact, it wasn't even accredited. No accreditation means that graduating students would not be able to sit for the state-recognized licensing exam known as the bar exam.

In other words, the new law school, Texas State University for Negros, would not serve to make licensed lawyers out of any of its black students. Sweatt filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals requesting a review of the lower court's decision but was denied.

In the appeal process, Sweatt would file a brief stating the reason he believed the lower court made legal errors that significantly affected the outcome of the case. Painter and the University of Texas Law School would also have the same opportunity.

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