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Appeals court judges answer students' questions

At William Woods University

FULTON, Mo. — Appeals court judges play a different role in the system than their trial judge counterparts, three judges told William Woods University students last week.

Several times a year, judges from Missouri’s Kansas City-based Western District appeals court take their hearings on the road, holding court in front of a student audience.

They’ve been to Jefferson City’s Lincoln University a couple of times in recent years.

And last week, they were at William Woods University on Wednesday afternoon for arguments in five cases, and then heard four more cases Thursday morning at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Law School.

Holding court away from Kansas City allows students and others to see what an appeals court argument looks and sounds like, since it’s different from procedures in a trial court.

And often — as they did Wednesday at William Woods — the judges will meet with students between cases and answer questions about their work.

Judge Cynthia Martin explained that a trial court is where the facts are determined — while appeals judges look at a case after the trial, mainly to decide if the trial judge made a mistake that requires the case to be sent back to the trial court and re-done.

“The fact-finder (trial judge) gets to have the benefit of all that non-verbal cuing,” she explained, “and decisions are made by juries every day, and by judges every day, about ‘Who do we believe — who do we not believe?’”

“So, it’s going to be the very rare case that, on review in an appellate situation, that we’re going to reject a credibility determination by a finder of fact — because we weren’t there, and we don’t have the benefit of all that non-verbal cuing.”

Trial judges often say their courts are more like production lines — they have full dockets and a constant stream of cases that have to be scheduled and resolved, as quickly as possible — while appeals judges work with what seems to be a more leisurely pace.

Appeals judges are given time to read the lawyer’s written arguments, or briefs, before they have oral arguments — which gives them a chance to research the legal arguments the attorneys make in each case, including reading the other cases those attorneys may cite as support for the arguments they’re making.

A trial court judge also gets briefs, mainly in civil cases.

But the trial judge also must think and react quickly during trials, as witnesses testify and the judge has to know and understand laws as well as the rules of evidence — and often must make quick decisions when objections are raised.

It’s those procedural decisions, as well as the final decisions in a case, that are most likely to get challenged on an appeal.

The trial level in circuit court involves one judge hearing one case at a time, but appeals court cases involve at least three judges — who often hear several cases at one time.

“All three of us (have) talked about these cases that we’re hearing argument on,” Judge Mark Pfeiffer said. “In fact, we’ve probably even had some debate amongst ourselves before we even come to oral argument.”

That pre-discussion isn’t an effort to decide the case before hearing the oral arguments, they said. Instead, it’s a chance to focus on the biggest issues, to know what questions the attorneys need to be asked.

“We view oral argument as being a very valuable part of the appellate process,” Martin said. “It can change our minds and it can, certainly, play a role in forming the parameters of an opinion. …

“Before that 10 minutes (of oral argument, questions and answers), many hours have been invested in reading briefs and independently looking at the law, because we want to be drilling down into things that are peculiar — and particularly important to us during that 10 minutes — so we’re not necessarily asking the softball, fluff-type questions that a quick-read of the brief would permit anyone to ask.”

At the end of each court session, the three judges will vote to decide what their ruling should be in each case they’ve heard.

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