Appellate Work: Getting the Law Right

Posted on Categories Alumni Contributor, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, Wisconsin Court System, Wisconsin Law & Legal System

Recently, I authored a post on this same blog discussing the first of two frequent observations I’ve made since joining the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor and rookie lawyer in February of last year. There, I expressed my belief that we must do more to educate the nonlegal public about what it is we do as lawyers. Here, however, I wish to share what is perhaps as much a personal conclusion as it is an observation—appellate work is where it’s at.

In the last six or so months, I’ve been tasked on several occasions to represent the State before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. These experiences have been enjoyable for several reasons—not the least of which is that I do enjoy writing about the law.

More generally, I have come to prefer legal argument over arguing facts. For these reasons, I expect that my career in the law will naturally gravitate toward appellate work. This is not to say I that I don’t enjoy trying cases to juries, but rather it is acknowledgment of one introspective observation.

As I’ve arrived at this conclusion, I’ve also realized that I’m most interested in getting the law right—regardless of whether doing so helps or hurts any particular position I’ve taken in a case. That said, what I find most appealing about appellate work is that I’ve come to believe that appellate courts generally prioritize getting it right above all else.

I don’t mean to suggest that the same hasn’t also been a common goal of each of the trial courts in which I’ve appeared, but the sheer volume of cases processed in our trial courts often make getting it right a goal rather than a custom or an expectation. During trial (and even during many other hearings in the circuit court), the parties and the court alike often must make decisions on the fly and sometimes do so at the expense of getting it right (which, I suppose, serves to keep our appellate courts in business).

Time to fully develop an issue and think through to an informed conclusion is a luxury not often enjoyed in our trial courts—particularly, in busy misdemeanor courts where it is common for sixty or more cases to be calendared in a single court on any given day. Such busy calendars coupled with the fact that trial courts are often bound by specific timelines in which they must act (e.g., speedy trial demands, competency evaluations, etc.) sometimes results in judicial efficiency taking priority over most else.

Appellate courts don’t appear to suffer the same struggles. Rather, parties have ample time to develop their strongest arguments and reviewing courts generally have time sufficient to fully and deeply consider the issues as they’re presented before issuing decisions.

Though I suspect few would disagree that the majority of our trial courts are overworked, I don’t endeavor to engage in that conversation here. Rather, I’ve simply sought to offer a glimpse into some of what I’ve observed—and even concluded—since embarking on my career in the law. While I understand that appellate work is something less than appealing to some of us, I take the opposite view and instead look forward to each opportunity I may have to do more of this important work.

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