Understanding the state court system can be confusing. You might be wondering what the different tiers of courts there are and also, what court systems cover specific case types, from civil to family and everything in between.
As part of our Legal Education Series, our team of personal injury lawyers in Milwaukee wants to help you understand the legal system in Wisconsin and be prepared with the knowledge you need to navigate through any type of legal proceeding.
This article will follow along in the series and provide a through overview of the Wisconsin court system, focusing specifically on the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
Understanding the Wisconsin Court System
Wisconsin has a three-tier court system: Circuit Courts, Appellate Courts and the Supreme Court. These courts cover all types of cases, criminal, civil, family and dozens of other cases.
Cases start out in the circuit courts. Every county has a circuit court, and most circuit courts have more than one branch, or judge. In larger counties, each branch typically handles a certain type of case, such as criminal, family, or civil cases. In less populous counties, there may only be one or two branches, each with its own judge that handles everything.
Legal Discovery and Validity
Before a case is argued or goes to trial, discovery and an evaluation of validity for each case must be completed. It is at this level that the parties learn about facts through a series of statutes called discovery statutes. Each side can find out about the facts behind the other sides claims or defenses, by taking depositions or issuing subpoenas. Each side can request production of documents or electronic files that may hold relevant evidence. And lastly, each side can inspect any physical evidence held by the other side.
It is at the circuit court level where the judges decide the validity of potential claims. In other words -- is there likely enough evidence that a jury could decide something in a party's favor?
Once a case gets past the first gate keeping, the judge decides what evidence can be presented. This is often the subject of legal arguments called "motions," where the court decides what evidence can be presented to a jury and what evidence is excluded.
A Case Is Decided - By a Judge or a Jury
Following legal discovery, the next stage is when the case is decided, by a judge, or more likely, by a jury. Either the judge or jury listen to the testimony, view any physical evidence or photographs, and come to a decision on the case. Each word that comes from a witness on the stand, each piece of evidence admitted, each argument made by attorneys in front of the jury is recorded and transcribed by a court reporter. This transcription, along with the evidence that was admitted, is what the appellate courts use to do their review work.
What Is An Appellate Court?
In simple terms, an appellate court is where judge or jury case decisions are reviewed. The appellate court is tasked with reviewing what went on in the trial court and deciding if the parties got a fair trial that followed appropriate law. Appellate courts do not hear any new evidence. They do not conduct trials. They do not have juries. They generally do not decide damages. Most of their work is done based on the transcript of what happened at trial at the level below them, and with appellate briefs submitted by the parties. Sometimes oral arguments are allowed, where the attorneys primarily answer questions about their legal arguments on the case.
How Does the Appellate Court Review Cases?
Appellate courts usually are not making decisions, but are reviewing decisions made by the circuit court judges. Circuit courts are given a lot of discretion on rulings of evidence and appellate courts are looking at those decisions to see if the circuit judge appropriately exercised its discretion. The appellate court looks to the facts presented to the trial court, looks at any relevant statutes and case law, and determines if the circuit court judge came to a decision that a reasonable judge would make. In other words, the court of Appeals is not going to nit-pick a decision admitting evidence, unless the circuit court did something horribly wrong in allowing that evidence before the jury.
Why Are Appeals Requested?
After the circuit court is done with its case, the losing party can appeal to the court of appeals. Appeals typically occur when the losing party is not happy with the result or decision of the circuit court, or when they feel something was not done correctly during the trial. In order to file for appeal, the appealing party has to pay for the cost of the court reporter typing out the transcripts, the clerk of the circuit court has to organize the exhibits, and everything must be sent to the court of appeals.
It is important to find a personal injury attorney with experience handling appeals that is not afraid to fight through all levels of the court system for your legal rights. The steps of the appeal process are very specific and require special expertise. Make sure your personal injury law firm has the knowledge to adequately represent your case on appeal, if needed.
What are the Steps of the Appeal Process?
The appeal process begins when the involved parties submit legal briefs. The rules are very particular about the different sections of the brief, its format, and its length. The appealing party starts out with its opening brief, then the responding party files its brief, and then the appealing party gets a short reply.
Then it’s a matter of waiting for a decision. Occasionally, the court of appeals will hear oral arguments, where the principal attorneys are asked to argue the case, which is a bit of a misnomer, because it is mostly answering questions from the appellate judges.
How Are Appeals Decided?
Appellate cases are decided based on the record from the circuit court, the briefs of the parties, and the arguments of the attorneys, if arguments are held. A decision is mailed to the parties and released on the court's website. It is typically a multi page decision that contains the facts of the case, the legal principles involved and whether the trial court's result is affirmed (agreeing with the circuit court ruling) or reversed (disagreeing with the circuit court ruling).
The Role Of The Wisconsin Supreme Court
A party that loses in the court of appeals has the option to petition the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the matter. The petition is a formal document, with very specific requirements about what must be included. The successful party in the court of appeals files a response. Then, the Supreme Court decides if they want to take the case.
Most cases are not accepted by the Supreme Court. This past term, the Supreme Court was asked to review 408 civil cases. This includes family law cases such as divorce, business lawsuits, construction disputes, real estate disputes and personal injury. The court accepted petitions for 30 civil cases.
The Supreme Court also handles many administrative matters for the entire court system, such as rules governing evidence, procedure and attorney conduct. They also handle attorney disciplinary cases. The Supreme Court can also receive cases that the court of appeals deems so significant or so in need of clarification that the court of appeals asks the Supreme Court to just bypass them, and hear the case directly.
What Happens During a Supreme Court Case?
Once the Supreme Court accepts a case, another set of procedural rules applies. Another set of legal briefs are filed that address why the court of appeals was wrong or right. The legal briefs again have very specific requirement on the contents and the presentation, and strict filing deadlines. If one little thing is missing or incorrect, the Supreme Court clerk can reject the filing. Our team of personal injury lawyers has taken a number of cases to the Supreme Court, so we are well versed in the requirements and specific procedures.
The Supreme Court always has oral arguments, which are held in the courtroom in the state capitol. They typically hear oral arguments once or twice a month, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. The rules for oral arguments are very specific. There is an appointed check in time. The marshal gets the attorneys together and goes over the ground rules. Each side has 30 minutes. The party that goes first can reserve time for rebuttal. There are lights on the podium, green means you have time, yellow means you have 5 minutes, red means you need to stop. If you are the appellant, you sit to the right of the podium. If you won below, you sit on the left. There are seven justices that sit on an elevated desk almost 50 feet wide. They will let you say whatever you want for about a minute or two, and then the questions start.
Most of those 30 minutes will be non-stop questions coming from the justices. Mostly, they will have a very good understanding of your case, and of the general area of the law. They will have tentatively decided which way they are going to vote, and it is the attorney’s job to convince anyone on the fence to come over to their side, and to deflect any arguments that are made and anticipated from the opponent.
When your time is up, you wait for the court's decision. The day before it is released, the clerk of the Supreme Court will call to tell you that the decision is being released the next day on the court's web site.
The judges on the court of appeals are typically very prepared, and the lawyers arguing really need to read and study the opinions of each justice in that particular area to understand their leanings, and attempt to develop arguments that may resonate with the cases they have decided in the past.
Having gone through four Supreme Court arguments, I can tell you that the first few minutes were unbelievably stressful. After those first two minutes, I can usually feel how things are going, and it becomes much less stressful, but still challenging. The court is deciding not only your case, but making law that could affect hundreds of other cases for many, many years. It is important that you are comfortable with your personal injury law firm and that you trust them to represent you to the best of their ability.
Do you have additional questions about the Appellate or Supreme Courts? Let us know or if you have a case for consideration, complete a free case evaluation to see if we can help you.
At Murphy & Prachthauser we practice personal injury law the way it should be practiced – motivated and equipped to do our best for you. We take pride in being good lawyers who help people.
If you have a case you would like to speak to a lawyer about, please contact us to schedule a free consultation and get an experienced team of lawyers working on your behalf.