Oral arguments in appellate cases are poorly understood by most defendants. Most appeals are decided outside of the courtroom through back-and-forth communication between the judge or judges and the prosecution and defense teams. When oral arguments are heard in the appeal, the court follows a very formal process to decide whether the original verdict was legally sound.
These cases are often heard in historic courtrooms, and three judges sit at a high bench that’s located a considerable distance away from the prosecution and defense teams. Attorneys at appeals court address the judges with the utmost respect and never leave their podiums unless one of the judges grants them permission to do so.
How Oral Arguments Are Structured
The judges usually take some time at the start of the hearing to issue instructions on what is and what is not allowed. The amount of time allowed for oral arguments is strictly limited – usually between 20 to 30 minutes for each party relevant scheduled for oral arguments.
Sometimes, the judges allow attorneys and witnesses to make presentations, but many appellate judges simply ask questions. Judges might ask questions after a presentation if they want to clarify something related to the case. If your appeal makes arguments on multiple grounds, it’s important to prepare your case thoroughly in each area.
Judges won’t necessarily reveal which areas really interest them, so it’s critical to know your arguments for each point of your appeal. The oral arguments often can become lively, but don’t make the mistake of failing to offer respect to the judges. Judges will look negatively on arguments made from lawyers or witnesses who are ill-prepared.
It Could Take an Effort to Schedule Oral Arguments
Most appeals are handled administratively by the exchange of briefs. The judges will send any questions they have on the case in the form of a brief, and your lawyer will return a brief with your answer. Oral arguments are only held in about 20 percent of appeals, and that number is shrinking each year. The figure was at 40.1 percent just 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, the high costs and time constraints of scheduling appellate hearings have led to the decline in holding them. Busy judges can manage multiple cases each day by reviewing the legal briefs on them and coming to a consensus. Some judges admit that oral arguments seldom change their opinions after reading the briefs.
However, other judges and the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers disagree with the practice of reducing oral arguments. The judges that support increased oral arguments believe that it’s a necessary training ground to teach lawyers how to plan and execute appeals. The basis of the U.S. legal system is arguing in court face-to-face when disagreements arise. A healthy but argumentative oral culture is the backbone of the legal system.
Tips for Preparing for Oral Arguments in Appeal Cases
It’s important to know your arguments and begin any prepared statement with a clear and concise synopsis. You should be confident, accurate with facts and as succinct as possible. Other tips for appellate oral arguments include:
- Prepare opening arguments and a detailed plan of where the arguments might go.
- After making one argument, proceed immediately to your next argument.
- Always address judges as “Your Honor.”
- Respond to “yes” or “no” questions with the appropriate response, but you can then expand on the topic.
- If the bailiff displays a “Stop” card, you should stop speaking immediately.
Preparing your appellate arguments requires focusing narrowly on legal issues and not your guilt or innocence or challenges of the evidence. Appeals are designed to cover legal and procedural issues.