How does an appellate court actually decide a case?

It is on the evening news on a pretty regular basis — the losing party in a big civil lawsuit will exit the courtroom, turn to a waiting camera, and when asked their reaction to the court’s decision will utter the three famous words, “WE WILL APPEAL.” Disappointed litigants will often believe that the judge was biased, or that their witness was certainly more credible than theirs, or the judge clearly misapplied the law. Many disappointed litigants may believe that an appeal to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals gives them an opportunity to retry the case.

It is not that easy or that simple. To understand what an appeal is requires an understanding of what standard of review the appeals court will apply and that depends on what is being challenged.

The Different Standards of Review

The appellate review of a judgment following a trial is reviewed using several standards when factual determinations are being challenged. If the trial was by a jury, the appellate court will uphold the verdict if there is any credible evidence to support it. The court will search the record for any such evidence that upholds the jury’s verdict, and will not give credence to evidence that supports a verdict that the jury could have found, but did not. The appellate court will not substitute its judgment as to which witness was more credible than another, or which testimony might have been given more weight than another. If the trial was before a judge without a jury, the appellate court defers to the trial court in such factual determinations and will not disturb them unless they are “clearly erroneous.”

Application of those facts to a particular legal standard, however, presents a question of law and the standard for review by the appellate court of questions of law is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the court’s review of facts; the court gives no deference to the interpretation given by the trial court and independently analyzes the issues. Such questions as the proper interpretation of a statute or how a contract, will or other legal document is construed are questions of law and are given the broadest review by the appellate court.

A third standard of review applies to a trial court’s decisions on discretionary issues, such as the admissibility of evidence or the conduct of legal counsel. On appeal, the issue is not whether the court of appeals would have ruled the same way as the trial judge, but whether there was a reasonable basis for the judge’s determination. This is commonly referred to as the “abuse of discretion” standard. If, after considering the facts and accepted legal standards, a reasonable judge would reach the same decision as the trial judge, the appellate court once again will not substitute its judgment.

Seeking Experienced Representation

The appeal of a decision to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals requires not only following detailed procedural rules, but requires a thorough knowledge of what legal principles the appellate court will apply and how any particular case can best be approached. The knowledge and skills of an experienced Wisconsin appellate lawyer are essential to either prosecuting or defending an appeal to the state’s highest courts.