What is the appellate “doghouse,” and why should you care?

No, I’m not talking about that imaginary place that your client puts you in if you lose the case. I’m talking about the mysterious “doghouse” references one sees when looking at the online docket of a California Supreme Court case. Take this snippet from the docket of a recently decided case, which shows that the record reached the Supreme Court on March 18, 2010:

The mysterious "doghouse"

Now, it seems rather obvious from the above image that a doghouse is some measure of the volume of the record. And, if you have petitioned the Supreme Court for review, you can guesstimate the size of a doghouse based on how many doghouses the record in your case fills.  But “doghouse” is a curious enough term in a court context that at a seminar I attended yesterday on the subject of handling large record appeals, panel member Justice Dennis Perluss (presiding justice for Division Seven of the Second District Court of Appeal) thought that even a roomful of appellate practitioners would benefit from actually seeing a doghouse, so he brought one with him.

It turns out that each doghouse — a fabric-covered cardboard folder of sorts, shaped roughly like a binder but without the rings — holds a maximum of about six inches of paper.

Not thrilling information, I know, so why should you care, besides the end of the mystery?

Well, many divisions in the Court of Appeal consider a case to be “big”  (sometimes referred to as “jumbo” among the court staff) if the record fills just three doghouses. That tells me that that the vast majority of appeals likely present a record smaller than that.  In fact, I would bet — I don’t have statistics — that there are more one-doghouse appeals than multiple-doghouse appeals.

Think about that. Consider that the fate of your appeal can depend on one or two  ”doghouses” — twelve inches or less of paper– even if you have spent years in litigation and built up a case file filling many file drawers. Now, consider the task of boiling that multiple-drawer file — or maybe even that multiple-cabinet file — to its essence. Buried somewhere in those drawers are the best issues for appeal and ideas for how to argue them. Then comes the task of winnowing those drawers full of paper down to those papers that are essential and most helpful to your client, yet still present a fair picture of the case so you cannot be accused of manipulating the record. That can be a daunting task, and one loathed by trial lawyers who live to argue to juries but hate all the paperwork.

I, on the other hand, love that challenge. It is what I and other appellate attorneys do all the time.

UPDATE (3/21/13): Ben Shatz at Southern California Appellate News has doghouse pictures.

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