Do you have questions regarding the Family Law Appellate Process?

You and your now ex-spouse are finally divorced, after a lengthy and difficult trial in front of a district court judge. After a day, or perhaps multiple days, of trial, you are finally holding your Judgment and Decree, in which your judge has set forth his or her decision in terms that will affect the rest of your life. Perhaps most important, if there are minor children involved, the Judgment and Decree affects their lives just as deeply.

Take time to carefully read the Judgment and Decree and talk it over with your lawyer as soon as possible. If the judge has made decisions that you feel are adverse to you or unjust, it is important that you tell your attorney right away, because the clock is ticking and there are a number of deadlines that you need to be aware of if you want to contest any findings or orders in your Judgment and Decree.

You have the option of filing a motion for amended findings and/or filing an appeal from an adverse Judgment and Decree. The motion for amended findings deserves its own article, so we’ll focus here on the basics of appealing a decision and return to the motion for amended findings in another blog.

Appeals from district court decisions are brought before the Minnesota Court of Appeals and are governed by a completely separate set of procedural rules. The rules are highly technical and many of the deadlines are jurisdictional in nature. That means that if you miss a deadline, your appeal is over before it starts because the Court will not take jurisdiction of your case.

The appeal is commenced by filing a Notice of Appeal and Statement of the Case (and filing fee of $550 in most cases) within 60 days of the entry of the Judgment and Decree.1 The Notice of Appeal and Statement of the Case are brief documents that inform the Court of Appeals of the judgment being appealed, along with a summary of the points of law and/or findings of fact being appealed.

Family law parties are required to undergo a special mediation process once the appeal has commenced and before the actual briefing schedule begins.2 The Court will order mediation and provide a list of approved family law appellate mediators for the parties to choose from. During the mediation process, which generally consists of one meeting with the mutually agreed upon mediator, the parties and counsel, the briefing deadlines are stayed.

If mediation is not successful, the mediator will inform the Court and the Court will issue a briefing schedule. The appellant will be given a deadline to file his or her appellate brief; the respondent will have thirty days thereafter to respond; and the appellant will then have fifteen days after that to file a reply to any new issues raised by respondent in his/her responsive brief.

The briefs are subject to technical requirements as to form, length, content and even font size. It is important that you retain an attorney who is familiar with the rules governing appellate briefs. Unlike at the district court level, where there can be more leeway for procedural errors or omissions, the appellate court environment is much less forgiving.

Once the briefs have all been filed, the Court will schedule oral arguments.3 The attorneys appear at the imposing Court of Appeals building adjacent to the state capitol. You, as a party, are welcome to attend and observe from the gallery, but you will not sit at the counsel table, and the appellate judges will not know who you are or why you are there. The reason you are not at counsel table is because an appeal is not a fact-finding process, but instead is a review of the district court judge’s decision based on the facts that came out at trial. The law is applied to those facts, rather than any new evidence.

Counsel for the parties each has twenty minutes to present her oral argument, and counsel for Appellant will often reserve some of her time to respond to Respondent’s counsel’s argument. During each attorney’s oral argument, the panel of three justices is free to interrupt, question and even argue with the attorney. Again, you are best served by an attorney who has extensive experience in this highly formal and sometimes intimidating environment.

The justices take the matter under advisement and issue their opinion some time after the oral argument. The opinion will be a public document that is available to other attorneys when they research a similar point of law in making their own appellate arguments.

As you can see from the foregoing, which barely touches on the all the points to consider when filing an appeal, this is a process that should not be taken lightly. In addition to the technical requirements, you should be aware that the Court of Appeals gives deference to the district court’s decisions, and will generally affirm unless a clear error has been made.

However, if counsel can demonstrate a genuine and significant error of fact or law in the district court’s reasoning, the Court of Appeals can and does overturn the district court despite the deference given to the district court’s decision. That, in fact, is how law is made in our system of jurisprudence, which relies heavily on judicial precedent in interpreting our statutory framework of laws.

While the process may be daunting, in other words, success is certainly possible and you may have a hand in shaping our state’s laws while pursuing justice in your own case.

1 You may also appeal an order (as opposed to a judgment), which has a slightly different deadline.
2 The mediation process may not be required in cases where domestic abuse has occurred.
3 The parties can agree to submit their issues solely on written briefs and forgo oral argument.