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Judicial Decision Making: Steps & Participants

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  • 0:02 Appellate Parties
  • 1:18 Appellate Process
  • 4:01 U.S. Supreme Court Process
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

A case will go through several steps before it can reach the U.S. Supreme Court. This lesson explains the participants, steps, and decision making involved in the appellate process. We will examine how a case can end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Appellate Parties

Meet Alex. Alex was expelled from his local high school because his haircut didn't comply with the school's dress code. Alex sued the high school in federal trial court, also known as district court, because he felt the school violated his constitutional right to free speech. Unfortunately, Alex lost.

Like other losing parties in federal district court, Alex is entitled to appeal to a federal court of appeals. In fact, even a winning party may appeal the decision. This is common when a party is awarded damages but believes he or she should have been awarded a higher amount. Just keep in mind that the government cannot appeal the verdict in a criminal case, though they can appeal the sentence. A defendant, on the other hand, can appeal a guilty verdict or the sentence imposed.

Once Alex files his appeal, he's known as the appellant. The appellant is simply the party who files an appeal. Alex's high school is the appellee, or the party who is defending the appeal. The appellee is also sometimes called the respondent and is usually the winner from the lower court.

Appellate Process

In his appeal, Alex must show that the trial court made a legal error that affected the court's decision. A legal error is a mistaken or incorrect application of law. For example, let's say the trial court refused to hear Alex's evidence that his mohawk is a form of speech. Alex says his haircut is a recognized statement in support of affordable health care. In his appeal, Alex will argue that, had the trial court heard this evidence, the court's decision would have been in his favor.

When the court of appeals reviews Alex's case, it will review the court record. This is a transcript of the case from the lower court. The court of appeals won't hear any additional evidence or re-try the case.

First, the appellant will present his or her legal argument to the panel. The appellant will do this by filing a legal brief. A brief is a written document stating the facts and legal argument of the party's case. In Alex's brief, he'll want to show that the trial court made an error and that the trial court's decision should be reversed.

The appellee, or respondent, also files a brief with the court. This brief is a response to the appellant's argument. For the high school, they will want to show that the lower court's decision was correct or that any errors are not significant enough to change the decision.

Most cases are decided using only the record and the written briefs. However, many cases are scheduled for oral argument. This means the parties give a short presentation before the panel, where the judges can ask questions. Normally, each party gets about 15 minutes for oral argument.

Notice that the federal appellate courts use a panel of judges. The panel is made up of three judges working together. All three will review the case and render a decision. To reach their decision, the panel votes. The majority vote rules.

Let's say the circuit court ruled in favor of Alex. The court decides that both the high school and the trial court should have considered whether or not Alex's mohawk was a form of speech, and thus, protected by the First Amendment.

In most cases, the decision of the court of appeals serves as the final decision in the case. Though sometimes the appellate court remands, or sends the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings. In some circumstances, a party might seek another appeal.

U.S. Supreme Court Process

A party who loses in a federal court of appeals, or in the highest court of a state, can try one last appeal. This appeal will be to the United States Supreme Court. However, this time around, the court is not required to accept the appeal.

The high school can now file a Writ of Certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. This is a written document asking the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court is picky and only grants approximately 1% of the writs they receive. They typically pick cases that involve an important interpretation of the Constitution or cases where federal appellate courts have interpreted a law differently.

As they are received, each writ is reviewed and summarized by a Supreme Court law clerk. These case summaries are then reviewed in conferences, held twice a week. There are nine judges, known as justices, on the Supreme Court. If four of the nine justices agree to hear a case, it is then placed on the court's docket. This is the court's calendar or agenda.

Let's say the Supreme Court grants the high school's writ. Next, both the high school and Alex will be required to file written briefs outlining the facts of the case and their arguments.

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