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VIEWPOINT: Parties in court are entitled to a fair trial, not necessarily a perfect one

Trial court judges hear testimony, review evidence, and apply the law in making decisions. Sometimes one side or another believes that the trial judge erred either in analyzing the evidence or in applying the law. Our judicial system allows for people to appeal to the Court of Appeals or, in some cases, the Supreme Court.

Some mistakenly believe that appealing a case basically starts it over from scratch with a new group of judges at the Court of Appeals. This is not correct. Instead, appellate courts are known as “error-correcting courts.” They review the trial court record to see if errors occurred. Appellate courts do not take additional evidence and generally do not consider arguments that were not presented to the trial court judge.

Appellate courts review cases for two types of errors:  errors of law and errors of fact. Different standards of review exist for each. When reviewing the law, the appellate court engages in what is known as “de novo” review. De novo means “new, starting from the beginning.” No deference is given to what the trial court judge believed the law to be. The law is what it is. The opinion, right or wrong, of the trial court judge does not change that.

Factual issues are handled quite differently. One case summarized the process by saying: “Appellate courts accord great deference to the trial court’s findings of fact because it has the advantage of hearing the testimony, assessing relative credibility of witnesses and acquiring a thorough understanding of the circumstances unique to the matter before it.”  For these reasons, a trial court judge’s findings of fact are only reversed if they are “clearly erroneous.” 

Appellate court decisions can have three basic outcomes: 

  • They can affirm what happened at the trial court, meaning that they agree that the trial court decision was proper according to law. 
  • They could, instead, reverse what was done. This means that they essentially flip the result from below.  
  • Or they can remand the case. This means that they send it back to the trial court for more work to be done.

Even though appellate courts are known as error-correcting courts, not all errors are legally significant enough to warrant a reversal or a remand. Parties in court are entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect trial. Even if error occurred, the appellate court must still determine if the error was significant enough that they were denied a fair trial. In other words, some errors are not legally significant enough to allow any remedy to the appealing party.

The Minnesota Supreme Court primarily handles appeals from the Court of Appeals. They  typically decide cases that are expected to have statewide impact. The Supreme Court applies the same appeal standards as the Court of Appeals. They give no deference to the legal analysis of either the trial court or the Court of Appeals. But they still give great deference to the factual findings made by the trial court judge.

Gregory Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for Judge Galler, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns at judgegreggaller.com.

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