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Appellate Court

Most legal disputes involving state law initially are decided by trial courts or certain administrative agencies. After such a decision, a party may seek appellate review of the ruling if the party believes the trial court or administrative agency made an error of law that harmed the party.

The information contained in this page does not apply to appeals from a small claims traffic judgment.

In cases other than death penalty appeals, small claims or traffic, the party seeks appellate review in the court of appeal. After the court of appeal has made its decision, the party may seek review in the California Supreme Court. Death penalty appeals are decided only by the Supreme Court.

Thousands of cases are appealed in California every year.

They include criminal convictions; civil cases involving personal injury, contract, employment, real estate, probate, dissolution of marriage, child custody, and many other issues; and administrative matters, such as worker's compensation. In the vast majority of these cases, the decision of the court of appeal is final. The Supreme Court grants review of only a few Court of Appeal decisions when necessary to resolve novel or disputed questions of law.

Appellate Court Proceedings

Proceedings in appellate courts are very different from those in trial courts. In trial courts, a judge or jury hears the testimony of witnesses, reviews physical evidence, exhibits and documents, and applies the law and reaches a decision. Appellate courts, on the other hand, do not decide an appeal by taking new evidence or reassessing the credibility of the witnesses who testified in the trial court. Rather, they review the written record to determine if the trial court properly interpreted the law and used the correct procedures when considering the case.

To ensure cases are examined from several perspectives, each Supreme Court case is heard by all seven of the high court's justices, while each court of appeal case is considered by a panel of three justices. Supreme and appellate court justices are assisted in their review by the parties' written and oral arguments. To decide a case in either court, a majority of the justices must agree.

All justices are bound to apply the law whether or not they personally agree with it. Justices may not substitute their own ideas for what the law should be, but are bound by the federal and state constitutions, statutes, and other rules and regulations legislated by those with the authority to do so, including the state legislature and voters by initiative. Judges must enforce all laws without being swayed by public opinion. The Code of Judicial Ethics requires all judges to "be faithful to the law regardless of partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism ..." The retention election system, adopted by California voters as part of the State Constitution, and is designed specifically to foster judges' independence from improper external pressures.

The California Constitution generally requires appellate courts to decide a case in a written opinion setting forth the facts and rules of law upon which the decision is made. By constitutional mandate, the decision must be issued within 90 days after the case has been taken under submission or the justices hearing the case cannot receive their pay.

Published Appellate Opinions

Important appellate opinions are published in law books and by electronic means, which are available to judges, lawyers, the public, and the news media. Such opinions become rules of law, which govern future disputes.

In 1996–1997, 18,802 criminal, juvenile, and civil cases were noticed for appeal. During the same period, appellate courts affirmed 95 percent of the criminal and juvenile cases and 76 percent of the civil cases they heard. Whenever an appellate court reverses, it almost always allows the trial court to rehear the case using the correct law and procedures. Before you file an appeal, you should read this information carefully. You are responsible for preparing all documents and doing any legal research you feel is necessary. The clerk cannot advise you on any legal issues or advise you as to the content of any papers required.

When you appeal

When you appeal, you are asking the appellate court to review a decision of the trial judge because you disagree with it. The court cannot review questions of fact. It can only decide if there was an error of law that was serious enough to have prevented you from having a fair trial.

The appellate court cannot retry the case. No witnesses can be heard, and the court cannot consider any evidence that was not presented at trial. It cannot consider conflicting evidence or choose to believe you instead of the other witnesses. The trial judge's determinations of credibility and conflicts in the evidence are binding in the appellate court. The appellate court can only look at the record on appeal and decide whether the trial judge's decision in the case is supported by substantial evidence.

The things you must do to be sure your appeal will be heard are in the California Rules of Court, California Rules 101 through 108 apply to all appeals. Rules 121 through 144 apply to civil appeals, and Rules 182 through 191 apply to appeals of traffic infractions and criminal cases. If you do not follow the rules carefully, you may lose the chance to have your appeal considered.

All papers filed with the court must be served on the opposing party or that party's lawyer and must have a valid proof of service attached.

The most important act in an appeal is filing the written notice of appeal. This notice must be filed with the Appeals unit before the deadline. There are many time limits and regulations in proceeding with an appeal. Please read the California Rules of Court to verify that you meet the time limits for every step. Failure to meet some time limits may result in dismissal of your appeal.

Note: If you do not file the notice of appeal on time, the appellate court cannot consider your case.

Visit our FAQ page for more information.

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