An Overview of California Appellate Briefs

Written briefs are the single most important part of an appeal in the California courts. Oral arguments, if you have them in your case, are typically brief. The appellate judges will rely largely on what’s contained in both the appellant’s and the respondent’s briefs. Having a skilled appellate attorney is therefore essential to cogently presenting your arguments to the court.

The Appellant’s Opening Brief

The party appealing the trial court’s decision (appellant) files what’s known as the opening brief. This important document frames the entire appeal and offers the appellant the chance to present his or her case. The opening brief will contain the following, among other items:

  • A review of the trial court ruling, decision, or judgment that’s being appealed
  • The standard of review for the appeal
  • The statutes, case law, and constitutional provisions the appellant relies upon to substantiate the appeal
  • The mistakes made by the trial court judge and why they are mistakes
  • How the mistakes impacted the outcome or a key decision of the case
  • Which parts of the trial court’s decision should be corrected or reversed

Remember, an appeal is not another trial of the issues and facts. Rather, the objective is to convince the Court of Appeal to overturn or reverse the trial court’s decision. Because appellate judges grant a large degree of discretion to lower courts, the brief must make a strong case and should, when possible, raise issues that do not require deference to the trial court’s rulings.

The Respondent’s Brief

The respondent is the opposing party. Whereas the appellant wants the trial court’s decision overturned, the respondent wants it left alone. After the appellant files a brief, the respondent gets to file one of his or her own.

The respondent will essentially explain why the trial court made the right decision. The respondent may even admit in the brief that some error occurred. But, the respondent will argue, the error had no impact on the judgment and the ultimate outcome was correct.

Because the respondent’s brief responds to the appellant’s brief, there’s no need to address new issues. In other words, the substance of the respondent’s brief is limited to whatever was presented in the opening brief. (The only way for the respondent to seek additional relief would be for the respondent to have filed his or her own cross-appeal.) These are some of the items the respondent will include in its brief:

  • A review of what’s in the trial court record (which may vary from the appellant’s observations)
  • The standard of review
  • The statutes, case law, and constitutional provisions supporting the respondent’s view
  • An explanation of why the trial court’s decision was correct
  • Responses to arguments made in the opening brief
  • As needed, why any mistakes at the trial court level do not necessitate reversal

The Appellant’s Reply Brief

The appellant gets the last word with the reply brief. The purpose of this optional brief is to object to and challenge the arguments made in the respondent’s brief. Importantly, the appellant cannot raise new arguments or repeat those made in the opening brief. Because the scope is far more limited, and the issues have been distilled to the primary conflicts between the appellant’s and respondent’s positions, appellate judges often start their review of the case with the reply brief, rather than the opening brief. This means the reply brief is must clearly delineate and proffer effective arguments for the court’s consideration.

The importance of appellate briefs cannot be overstated: cases are won or lost largely on these filings. The right appellate attorney will be familiar with the relevant laws and standards the court should review. Your lawyer should also know what it takes to write a compelling brief that adheres to the necessary appellate rules.

If you’re ready to appeal your case or you have questions about the process, call Gusdorff Law today.

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