The Missouri Court of Appeals is the final word on some 90 percent of the state’s legal decisions, and our Eastern District justices came to have that final word in grand style Thursday in Ste. Genevieve at its county courthouse.
It was a rare opportunity for area students to see their higher court in action, and the morning session was attended by a number of Ste. Genevieve elementary students.
“It’s good for the community to see the operation of the appellate court,” Judge Gary M. Gaertner said. He and justices Lawrence E. Mooney and Mary Kathryn Hoff explained the justices try to vary the location of appearances to give more citizens an opportunity to see their court in action.
“We aren’t in an ivory tower,” Hoff said.
The Court of Appeals’ primary focus is to review the decisions of the lower circuit courts and ensure correct procedures are followed in each case.
Attorneys are each given equal time to discuss the finer points of their position and explain the errors they believe should be corrected.
In one case, defendants argued that they had been in court on a motion for discovery but ended up facing a trial on the merits for which they were unprepared.
Plaintiff argued that defendants allowed the case to go ahead, answered the questions, presented witnesses knowing full well the judge could decide the entire matter, hoping to “run their case up the flag to see if the judge would salute” but then back pedaling with this appeal when he didn’t.
The justices interrupted at times to ask pointed questions, but gave little sign which way their decision leaned. After the brief arguments were done in each case, they recessed to discuss the merits of the case in private.
Doug Bader, court administrator, explained they would likely discuss the matter and take a preliminary vote, then one would be assigned to write an opinion on the appeal.
The draft opinion will be circulated to each judge for further arguments, discussion, minor corrections before being finalized. If one of the justices disagrees, he or she may then write a dissent.
The two judges still win, obviously, but dissents are an important part of the process, Bader explained. The dissent can become the basis for an appeal to the Supreme Court, or as new justices come aboard and opinions shift, they can become the basis for overturning a previous ruling.
Unlike the Missouri Supreme Court, the appeals court must hear every case presented to it to ensure that all appropriate legal rules have been observed.
Gaertner said many describe the appeals court as the court of errors, but he believes it is a court of justice as well. The appeals court does not just look at procedures with a blind eye to the bottom line and whether justice was served. “We really try to ensure that justice has been done,” Gaertner said.
“If there’s error at the trial court level, it can be very significant, for example, if improper instructions were given to a jury,” Hoff said.
A lot of public political statements lately have focused on higher courts as consisting of “activist” judges, but these three feel they are constrained by many things from ever taking such a role.
Two things must be taken into account at the appeals court level, Mooney explained, factual matters and legal ones.
“For factual matters we rely on trial court judges,” he said. “For legal issues, we are bound by the Supreme Court, statutes, and the Constitution.”
In general, the appeals court has affirmed trial court decisions 80 to 90 percent of the time. Only a very small percentage of cases are ever passed up to the Supreme Court level, and that court can refuse to hear cases if they feel no new precedent is necessary.
Several members of the Eastern District Court of Appeals were up for retention in the recent November General Election.
Hoff pointed out there is a Web site containing biographies of the judges if voters would like more information about them prior to an upcoming election.
In addition, the Missouri Bar rates judges on a variety of issues, such as fairness, politeness, command of legal issues, and that is also available online and is distributed to various libraries.