Most legal disputes involving state law are initially decided in the trial courts or by an administrative agency. But after such a decision, an individual may turn to the states appeal courts if he or she believes a legal error occurred that harmed the case. In fact, thousands of cases are appealed every year.(1) They include criminal convictions as well as civil cases involving personal injury, contracts, employment, real estate, probate, divorce, child custody and many other issues. Whenever an appellate court reverses a trial court decision, it almost always allows that court to rehear the case using the correct law and procedures. In the vast majority of cases, the decision of a Court of Appeal is final. The state Supreme Court does not review the vast majority of cases it steps in to resolve new or disputed questions of law as well, as to review death penalty cases. Death penalty cases proceed directly to the Supreme Court, bypassing the lower Court of Appeal.
The appellate courts of California consist of the Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal. The judges who serve on these courts are called appellate justices. There are seven justices on the Supreme Court and 93 justices on the Courts of Appeal. The Courts of Appeal are divided into six geographical districts and hear cases arising within the district.
Proceedings in appellate courts are very different from those in trial courts. In trial courts a judge or jury hears the testimony of witnesses and reviews physical evidence, exhibits and documents before deciding a case. Appellate courts do not decide an appeal by taking new evidence or reassessing the credibility of the witnesses who testified in the trial court. Instead, they review the written record to determine if the trial court properly interpreted the law and used the correct procedures when considering the case. The opposing parties submit written documents, called briefs, to assert their position. The parties also participate in oral arguments before the appeal court justices.
To ensure that the cases are examined from several perspectives and receive a thorough analysis, each Court of Appeal case is decided by three appeal court justices. All seven justices decide the Supreme Court cases. In both cases, a majority of justices must agree on a decision. All justices are bound to apply the law whether they agree with that law or personally disagree with it. Justices may not substitute their ideas for what the law should be. They are bound by the federal and state Constitutions, statutes and other rules and regulations dictated by the state legislature, voter initiatives and other authorities. Judges must interpret and enforce the law 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.” Generally, the decision must be issued within 90 day after it has been submitted for decision.
The federal and state court systems are completely separate and distinct from one another. However, some decisions of state appellate and supreme courts are subject to review by the federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has the power to review any case arising in state court if it involves a federal issue. In a limited number of other cases, a single federal trial judge may reject a decision of a state appellate or Supreme Court or an initiative approved by state voters. Federal courts are distributed through the 50 states. There are 94 federal district (trial) courts, 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal and one U.S. Supreme Court. All federal judges and justices are nominated by the President and are confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Once confirmed, federal judges and justices sit for life. They may only be removed from office by impeachment. (2)Voters in their districts elect the Court of Appeal justices who serve in districts that cover certain parts of the state . The state Constitution sets the term of office at 12 years, or less if a justice is replacing one who retired. In that case, the justice must run for confirmation in the next general election. At the end of that term, the voters at a general election must again confirm the justices,