Appellate Procedure,  California Court of Appeal,  California Procedure,  Judges,  Legal Writing,  Record on Appeal

Settled Statements, New Trials, and the Languishing Criminal Defendant

When a reporter’s transcript of proceedings is unavailable for appeal, the appeal may proceed by way of a “settled statement.” California Rules of Court, rule 8.130(h). Some pitfalls of this procedure are revealed in People v. Cervantes, no. B183412 (May 16, 2007).

On Cervantes’s first appeal, the court reporter advised that a technical malfunction prevented her from transcribing the testimony of the sole prosecution witness. Nearly a year after his conviction, Cervantes moved for summary reversal and a retrial based on the absence of the transcript. The Court of Appeal denied the motion but remanded for the trial court to determine if a settled statement could be obtained.

At the hearing on the settled statement, held more than a year after conviction, the trial judge admitted having no recollection of the trial proceedings. The proffered settled statement was prepared almost entirely by the prosecutor with only nominal participation from appellate defense counsel, who had not participated at trial. Cervantes’ trial counsel had no input at all. He was deemed unavailable when appellate counsel told the court that he had left the public defender’s office. The trial court approved the settled statement.

It turned out that Cervantes’s trial counsel remained practicing in town after leaving the public defender’s office. The Court of Appeal, noting that Cervantes will be entitled to a new trial if a settled statement cannot be approved, remanded for a determination of whether a settled statement could now be prepared with the assistance of his newly located trial counsel.

Net result: More than two years after his conviction, Cervantes still doesn’t know if he will be appealing on the basis of a settled statement or will instead be entitled to a new trial.

Lessons for trial lawyers: The Court of Appeal will not grant new trials on the basis of unavailability of transcripts until efforts at procuring a settled statement are thoroughly exhausted. Determine the availability of your trial transcript immediately and keep track of persons important to the preparation of a settled statement — just in case. It turned out in this case that although Cervantes’s trial counsel had left the public defender’s office, he was still practicing locally — a little effort could have saved a lot of time.

As a side note, the unanimous opinion from our local division of the Second District Court of Appeal contains this gem of writing in the introduction:

“The trial judge has no recollection of the trial proceedings. Yet, he approves a settled statement. This is unsettling.”

That’s the kind of writing that keeps opinions from being boring, yet maintains the seriousness of the subject (unlike, in my view, this opinion). I wish I could write similar remarks. But such writing from an appellate justice is almost universally appreciated, while an attorney submitting a brief has to worry about insulting the seriousness of the court. If I really want to scratch that itch, I should work on getting appointed to the bench.

Thanks to The Electric Lawyer.