Partner Carol Rooney on the ABA Council of Appellate Lawyers Executive Board
November 7, 2023
My first job as a lawyer was clerk to a state court appellate judge. In the course of explaining my duties, the judge told me “Tony, remember; trial courts search for truth, appellate courts search for error.”
In the trial court a Plaintiff starts a lawsuit by filing a complaint making as-yet unproven allegations and making a demand for damages. The defendant responds with an answer denying those allegations. The “truth” of the matter is unknown at this early point. The rules of civil procedure guide the two parties on their journey of discovery, with differences refereed by the trial judge. The trial judge is called on to make many decisions, large and small, in the course of moving the case through the trial process. The viable disputed issues are narrowed by the trial judge, and those remaining disputed matters are set for trial. The jury then decides the disputed issues of fact and returns its verdict. The trial judge takes that verdict and issues her judgment. And that judgment is, in effect, determined to be the truth of the disputed matter. And it is in this way that a trial court’s job is to search for, and then declare, the truth.
Now the losing party, unhappy with the outcome, may find fault with the way the trial judge handled the case and file an appeal. The decisions of the trial judge in the course of the case are then examined. In the appellate court there is no discovery, and there are no new arguments or allegations. The appellate judges’ job is to review the trial court’s decisions that have been challenged by the appellant. The appellate judges apply various special standards in the course of this review. They determine whether the appellant’s arguments have been raised and preserved for review, and, in the end, they declare either that the trial court did, or did not, make an error in the course of adjudging “the truth.” In this way, the appellate court’s job is to search for error, and when found, correct it.
So, trial courts find and declare the truth, and a lawyer working in the trial court must have the knowledge of the rules, procedures, and processes of the trial court, and she must have those special skills to perform that specialized work. Appellate courts, with a very different function, working with different set of rules and procedures, look for error in the judgment. A lawyer working in the appellate courts must have knowledge and skills appropriate to those different rules, functions, and procedures, for that specialize work. Apples and oranges.
For any further questions, please contact Anthony Russo.