Big city justices roll into Napa

The First District Court of Appeal convened yesterday in Napa to hear two criminal cases at a public auditorium before about 400 high school students. The justices also treated the students to a Q&A session.

Given that most people’s exposure to the law through the entertainment media nearly always involves a trial, this session strikes me as an excellent opportunity to educate the public about appeals. After all that exposure to movie-version trials, one suspects that the typical student, unless adequately briefed on the proceedings beforehand, would walk away from an appellate hearing saying to himself, “That’s it?” I’m curious whether that sentiment came out during the Q&A or in the preparation leading up to the event.

Also anticipating that sentiment was the reporter who wrote the article run by the Napa Valley Register the day prior to the session, who apparently had brief experience covering appellate decisions, and offered this comparison of trial and appellate proceedings:

While jury trials have some drama, what with the grilling of witnesses and introduction of eye-opening evidence, trials also can be tedious.

At the court of appeals, it is literally stand and deliver.

A lawyer has 20 minutes or so to persuade the court he or she is right, with the other side firing back from steps away. Either side can be undone by the justices, who can ask whatever they want whenever they want of whomever they want, making hash of a lawyer’s best-laid plans.

This actually strikes me as a a pretty fair layman’s synopsis of the differences between trial and appellate proceedings. It’s no doubt enough to scare some people out of ever considering appellate practice (probably the same people who prayed all during law school that their professors would not call on them in class). For the well-prepared appellate advocate, it not only can be a great challenge, it can also be quite enjoyable.

By itself, however, the comparison does not answer the “that’s it?” query. There are plenty of subtleties (and a heck of a lot of preparatory work!) involved in every oral argument. I will continue to write on those topics, but you can see what I mean by some of my earlier posts on the topic of oral advocacy.


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