Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Videos

A denial of a clemency request in CA amounts to a finding of abuse of power

Clemency requests in California must be approved by the Supreme Court, and they are not always approved. Denials of clemency requests, says David Ettinger, are “essentially court determinations that the clemency grants would have been abuses of gubernatorial powers.”

In one particular case back in 2019 concerning Joe Hernandez, a majority of the Supreme Court, without specifying a reason, declined to recommend the commutation.” Ettinger notes that then-Gov. Brown fumed, “Read the ones who were approved and read the ones who were disapproved and you tell me what the rule is.”

Gov. Newsom, on the other hand, has a nearly perfect record on his clemency recommendation requests. Why the change?

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Why Justice Bedsworth Called Justice Thompson “Hard Headed”

Of his former colleague, Justice William Bedsworth is quoted as saying: “Justice Thompson has a rare combination of a hard-headed, straight-ahead approach to the law and a big heart that never lets him lose sight of the impact his decisions have on real people.”
“Head-headed?” What did Justice Bedsworth mean by that? Justice Thompson joins Tim Kowal and Jeff Lewis on the California Appellate Law Podcastm to explain.

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Advocacy Justice: Justice Lambden used to send opinions as “FYIs” to the Legislature

If you read court cases for a living, you may have some that conclude, “while we are sympathetic to the appellant, this is a problem for the Legislature to resolve.” Which is usually sensible enough. But how does anyone know if the Legislature is reading these cases?

Justice Lambden wondered the same thing. So that’s why when he wrote one such opinion, he forwarded a copy of it to the Speaker of the Assembly. Not as advocacy, mind you, just as an FYI. After all, Justice Lambden explains, it is a function of the courts to educate.

He would even tap on the microphone as a trial court judge to punctuate the record, “hey, Court of Appeal, this is an interesting issue.” You’ll never get a holding on an important issue if no one ever brings it up on appeal!

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Writ Petitions Are Won or Lost in the First Paragraph

When you have a legal emergency and you need the Court of Appeal to act right away, you need writ relief. But less than 10% of writ petitions are granted. So how do you get the court’s attention?

Justice David Thompson spent more time on his court’s writ panel over the last decade than anyone, and here is his advice:
You have to demonstrate why your case is writ-worthy in the first paragraph.

The first paragraph.

And the big thing you have to explain is: You are going to get a chance to appeal at the end of the case—why isn’t that enough? Why do you get to jump the line?

Also consider highlighting an interesting legal issue: some justices may be inclined to grant writ review to write on an issue they find interesting (though Justice Thompson does not endorse this school of thought).

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Concede Weak Arguments, Gain Credibility, Says Justice Lambden

Even more than being buried alive, Justice Lambden says attorneys are terrified of missing an argument. This is why attorneys tend to indulge the temptation to be overinclusive in their arguments.

But making too many arguments comes at the cost of credibility. If the attorney is just “running the loop again,” the bench is more likely to tune out. “We always notice,” Justice Lambden recalled from his time on the Court of Appeal, when an attorney told the court which argument to focus on. You will show courage if you acknowledge a certain argument is not your strongest, and you will earn credibility when you pivot to the argument that is your strongest.

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Litigation Is Not a Battle, It's an Expedition, Says Justice Lambden

“Are you one of them liberal judges?” someone once asked Justice Lambden. Calling himself a “process judge,” Justice Lambden responded, “Well, if Congress passed a liberal law, I’d enforce it. If it passed a conservative law, then I’d enforce that.” Still, most judges want to get the “right result.”

What does this mean for litigators? Recognizing that most cases really should settle, courts are encouraging more collaborative processes to put cases in a settlement posture. Attorneys should recognize that litigation is an expedition, not a battle.

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Tim Tells a Norm MacDonald Joke

Just for fun, here is one of my favorite Norm McDonald jokes (RIP).

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“You Had to Be There” Doesn't Work on Appeal

One of the challenges for us appellate attorneys arguing posttrial motions is that the trial judge tends to look upon us as johnny-come-latelies. “That’s how things look to you reading the dry transcripts, Mr. Kowal, but you weren’t here when it happened.”

That may be so. But there is someone else who wasn’t there, Three someone elses, in fact: the jurists on the appellate panel. All they will have is the same dry transcript that I have.

While appellate courts tend to defer to a trial judge’s sense of the case, this tends to run up against the great appellate maxim of “record cites or it didn’t happen.” Just saying “you had to be there” doesn’t quite cut it.

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Blue Book or Yellow Book for Legal Citation Format?

Legal writing and editing nerds, you may have opinions on this. Benjamin Shatz sounds off on whether the Blue Book or the Yellow Book is the superior form of legal citation. Ben’s […]

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Should Appellate Courts Promote Mediation?

Should appellate courts mediate disputes? Appellate specialist and mediator John Derrick says that the court’s mission is to “weave the tapestry of the common law,” and you do that by deciding cases, not by settling them. After all, you don’t see the Supreme Court trying to get cases to settle, now do you?

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Two stories about judges who wouldn't follow the law

Every attorney who loses a case feels the sting of defeat. But the losses you never forget are the ones you really deserved to win.

I share two experiences where trial judges were not following the law. The first judge indicated he was going to rule based on “cultural considerations” favoring a family patriarch. But to that judge’s credit, eventually he abandoned that view.

The second judge thumbed his nose at Supreme Court precedent. The Conservatorship of McQueen case, concerning judgment-enforcement, holds that the plaintiff’s right to claim enforcement fees is terminated the moment a judgment is paid in full. Despite a dramatic showing of full payment of a judgment (using an armored car and guard), the judge declined to follow binding precedent. Not all judges have the same fidelity to law and precedent. That is why the right to appeal is so important.

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When Courts Give the Silent Treatment

Judges are rightly frustrated with counsel who do not respond to unfavorable facts and arguments. So when asked what I find frustrating about appellate practice, my answer is: judicial opinions that do not answer the strongest arguments.

On most occasions when an appellate court has not agreed with my client’s position, our courts give excellent analysis. This allows my client (and me) to swallow the bitter pill.

But on several occasions, I have searched in vain for a substantive analysis of my strongest arguments. Going into an appeal, appellants understand their chances are slim. What they should be able to count on is the dignity of an explanation to their positions. It is, after all,

guaranteed by the California Constitution:

Under article VI, §14 of the California Constitution, the appellate courts of this state are required to provide reasons for their rulings: “Decisions of the Supreme Court and courts of appeal that determine causes shall be in writing with reasons stated.” An opinion need not be exhaustive, but “a decision directing the issuance of a peremptory writ in the first instance is a ‘judgment’ ” within the meaning of provisions of Art. VI, “and the court must set forth the grounds for such a decision.” (Lewis v. Superior Court (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1232.) “[A]n opinion sufficiently states ‘reasons’ if it sets forth the ‘grounds’ or ‘principles’ upon which the justices concur in the judgment.”

To paraphrase Orwell, one does not need to be accepted, but merely to be understood. And Epictetus: “To the rational creature that which is against reason is alone past bearing; the rational he can always bear. Blows are not by nature intolerable.”

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