In the American justice system, trial courts are where we most formally resolve both criminal and civil disputes. A trial court (through the judge and maybe a jury) hears evidence of what happened, considers both sides’ positions in light of settled legal principles, then reaches a decision – its judgment: the defendant is guilty, or liable, or neither. But what if the court’s judgment is based on some sort of mistake – a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts, or the law, or one party’s position?
That’s where the appellate courts come in. Their role is to review and, if necessary, correct the trial courts’ work. So, for example, if the judgment is based on a factual finding with no support in the evidence, or on a misunderstanding of the law, an appellate court may find prejudicial error and reverse the judgment.
What about the appellate courts themselves; do they ever make their own errors? Fortunately, just as most trial court judgments don’t require reversal, most appellate decisions apply correct legal principles to a reasonable statement of the facts proved at trial. Still, errors can and do occur; and they can and do make a difference in the outcome of an appeal.
In California, the appellate courts consist of the Courts of Appeal (in six districts and multiple divisions) and the Supreme Court. Just as the Courts of Appeal review trial court judgments, the Supreme Court reviews Court of Appeal decisions – with a major difference. All that’s necessary to trigger full appellate review of a trial court judgment is an appeal filed by the losing party; once that process is initiated, the Court of Appeal must examine the trial court record and consider and rule on the issues raised. But there’s no corresponding right to full review of a Court of Appeal decision; that happens only in extremely rare cases presenting what the Supreme Court determines to be particularly important legal issues. Uncorrected appellate error, in and of itself, isn’t a ground for Supreme Court review. Similarly, if a material error invades a Supreme Court opinion and isn’t corrected, that pretty much ends the matter in the state courts. And federal review of state appellate decisions is limited and in most cases unavailable.
So while the body of Court of Appeal decisions provides a fairly comprehensive catalog of trial court errors, there doesn’t appear to be an equivalent resource for examining appellate errors. Yes, some are identified in California and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, among the relatively few cases those courts happen to hear; others, in opinions from federal courts engaging in increasingly restricted habeas corpus review of criminal cases. For that matter, most appellate opinions (other than the Supreme Courts’) are unpublished and uncatalogued; studying the problem of error is that much more difficult. If such a problem exists, it’s a virtually invisible defect in the appellate justice system; the only people aware of it would be individual attorneys and clients who experience it when reviewing the unpublished opinions that end their cases.
CalAppErrors’ premise, then: To the extent that the appellate justice system tolerates even occasionally erroneous decision-making, with no effective remedy, the system is arguably flawed. What is that extent; what types of errors occur; how often? CalAppErrors is designed to collect, study, classify, and document significant appellate errors, with the hope that public awareness will ultimately make a difference.
What sorts of errors?
The categories, each one defined, are here; they include demonstrable errors as to fact, law, and issues – not reasonably supported analyses even if disputable. Overall, CalAppErrors is concerned only with errors that appear to have made a difference in the appellate outcome. We call those “material” errors, in the sense that it’s reasonably likely the error(s) affected the result. (Cf. Hemet Valley Growers v. Parssinen (1949) 89 Cal.App.2d 695, 698.)
Who is CalAppErrors?
We’re an informal association of Californians concerned with the issue of appellate error. As of CalAppErrors’ inception, our members are practicing appellate attorneys. The views expressed on this site, independently of those in signed briefs, articles, and forum posts, are ours. If you’re interested in joining the team, let us know.
Where does the information come from?
CalAppErrors encourages users, especially appellate attorneys, to send us summaries and documentation of what appear to be erroneous appellate decisions. These errors may have been identified in other reported opinions (e.g., Supreme Court, 9th Circuit, subsequent Court of Appeal); or they may have been the subject of post-opinion briefing (e.g., rehearing petition, petition for review). We’ll review each submission, determine whether it appears to clearly reveal material appellate error, and if so, categorize and post the summary and accompanying materials.
Who can use CalAppErrors?
Anyone interested in California’s justice system – appellate attorneys, judges and justices, litigants, legislators, law professors, law students, journalists, bloggers….
How do I use CalAppErrors?
On the Categories and Resources pages, you’ll find information about the types of errors this site collects. The collected examples – each typically including a summary, appellate opinion, and related documents – are on the Cases page. They’re also organized by type – click on one of the Categories in the list you’ll see on each page. Or you can Search for cases by category (select one or more); several additional search filters are available. Every page also offers a site-search box. For more detailed analyses, see Resources. And if you want to further explore appellate-error issues raised here, or raise your own, join the Forums.