When most people think of a lawsuit, they tend to think it ends when the plaintiff and defendant go to trial and the judge (or the judge and a jury) decides who wins. As the song says, it ain’t necessarily so. Remember that in California and most other states, the judicial system looks like a three layer wedding cake. The bottom layer, much bigger than the one above it, corresponds to the trial courts.
All lawsuits, called “cases” in legal jargon, begin in the trial courts, called Superior Courts. They’re organized by county, so there’s a California Superior Court for San Diego County, a California Superior Court for Riverside County, etc. Each county is divided into judicial system districts. Each district may contain several cities as well as unincorporated parts of the County. The main courthouse will be located in the county seat. For example, the City of San Diego is the county seat of San Diego County and the location of the main courthouse, and both are within the Central District, while the Superior Court branch courthouse in Vista is within the North County District. Each courthouse will have more than one courtroom. Each courtroom is called a Department. A single judge is assigned to each Department. There are hundreds and hundreds of Departments in all the Superior Courts of all the Counties of California.
Cases end in the Superior Courts with the filing of judgments in favor of the plaintiff or defendant. (If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, it says that the plaintiff’s complaint is “dismissed.”) Judgments are generally quite short. However, they are usually accompanied by relatively long statements of decision, which set forth the factual findings of the judge or jury, the applicable law, and the reasoning of the judge underlying the judgment. Judgments and statements of decision are not published.
The middle layer of the cake corresponds to the Courts of Appeal. The Courts of Appeal are organized by Appellate Districts, which may contain two or more Divisions. Each Division has its own courtrooms, which are sometimes not in courthouses. There are six Districts and several dozen Divisions. The boundaries of the Divisions and Districts correspond to County boundaries. For example, the Fourth District is now made up of six southern California counties, San Diego, Imperial, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Inyo, divided into three Divisions: San Diego (Division One), Riverside (Division Two), and Santa Ana (Division Three). Division One is located in San Diego and hears appeals only from the Superior Courts of San Diego and Imperial Counties.
While only one judge handles each trial in the Superior Court, a panel of several “Justices” handles each appeal in the Court of Appeal. No new evidence can be presented to the Court of Appeal, only written and oral argument by the attorneys, based on a transcript of what was said during the trial, exhibits entered into evidence during the trial, the judgment itself, and the statement of decision
If one of the parties to a lawsuit (or both) thinks the trial judge in the Superior Court made a mistake, then the party may appeal to the Court of Appeal to correct the mistake. If the Court of Appeal agrees a mistake has been made, correction comes in two forms. Sometimes the Court of Appeal sends the case back to the trail court for another trial. Sometimes another trial is unnecessary, and the Court of Appeal instead modifies or reverses the judgment. In the vast majority of cases, the Court of Appeal doesn’t agree there’s been a mistake by the trial judge, and it simply affirms the judgment. Cases end in the Courts of Appeal with decisions in the form of written opinions. An opinion is similar to a statement of decision, but usually much longer and much more elaborate. Some opinions of the Courts of Appeal are published.
The top layer of the cake corresponds to the California Supreme Court. It is to the Courts of Appeal what the Courts of Appeal are to the Superior Courts. However, there is only one Supreme Court composed of twelve “Justices,” and while the Courts of Appeal cannot pick and choose among appeals from the Superior Courts and must decide all of them, the Supreme Court can and does pick and choose among appeals from the Courts of Appeal. After a preliminary review of an appeal, if the Supreme Court concludes the issues raised by the appeal are not significant enough to consider, it can summarily dismiss the appeal. All opinions of the Supreme Court are published.Anyone involved in a lawsuit in the Superior Court, or thinking about starting one, should keep our wedding cake in mind, as well as how it works. Anyone involved in an appeal, or faced with one, should do the same. A Superior Court judgment is only a piece of paper, not money. If you win, the loser can easily appeal to the Court of Appeals. The appellate process may take a year or more to conclude, and it may cost as much if not more in attorney fees than you spent in the Superior Court. If you lost in the Superior Court, winning in the Court of Appeal is highly unlikely. Conversely, if you won in the Superior Court, winning in the Court of Appeal is highly likely, but that may be small consolation compared to the attorney fees you might spend defending the Superior Court judgment successfully. The dynamics of appealing a decision of the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court are similar. Some cases spawn multiple appeals and go for years. As Yogi Berra said, “It isn’t over until it’s over.”
Stanley D. Prowse is a Civil Litigation Attorney practicing in the greater San Diego area.