The appellate practice equivalent of the old real estate maxim “location, location, location” is probably “standard of review, standard of review, standard of review.” Most appellate opinions state very clearly the standard of review that they are applying to a given issue on appeal.
In Warner Bros. Int’l v. Golden Channel, case no. 05-55374 (Apr. 15, 2008), the Ninth Circuit panel takes a shortcut. The appeal is from the judgment after a bench trial and the only reference the opinion makes to any standard of review is this: “In light of the findings of fact and words of the contract the parties signed, the conclusions of law (which are not reviewed under the highly deferential “clearly erroneous” standard [fn.]) are problematic.” That’s it. The court says what standard it is not applying, but doesn’t specify what standard it is applying. You have to go to the case cited in the footnote to be certain that the court is applying de novo review to the conclusions of law reached by the district court.
Maybe I’m making too big a deal of this. Everyone knows conclusions of law are subject to de novo review, right? Well, we know the standard of review in lots of other circumstances, too. But that doesn’t usually stop the court from reminding us.
Of course, the standard of review isn’t always so easy. It can be downright tricky and even disputed by the parties.
A great starting point for anyone representing a party on appeal in the Ninth Circuit is the court’s own guide to standards of review, which it makes available on its website (PDF download). Follow the court’s caution, though, and use it only as a starting point for your own research.