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Legal Information

After a Decision is Issued

Updated: September 21, 2021

What are the typical “grounds for appeal” that judges will consider?

Although it may vary by state or by the type of case that you are appealing, typically the grounds for an appeal are as follows:

The judge made an error of law
An “error of law” generally means that the judge in your case applied the wrong rule or “legal standard” to the facts of your case. This can occur if a trial court did not follow either the statute or case law in your state that is supposed to apply in your case’s circumstances. For example, in custody cases, a judge must determine what is in the child’s best interests. Most states have laws setting forth certain factors that must be considered, typically called “best interests factors.” If one of those factors is whether or not a parent committed domestic violence but the trial judge ignores domestic violence evidence in making the custody determination, you may have grounds to appeal based on an error of law.

An error of law is the strongest type of ground for appeal because the appellate court reviewing the case does not have to give any weight to what the trial court judge did. The appellate court will look at the law that was supposed to be applied and decide whether or not the trial court judge made a mistake.

The judge made an error regarding the facts
Generally, a judge’s ruling in the trial court must be based on the facts that are proven at trial. In most cases involving domestic violence and family law, there is no jury and the judge serves as the “fact finder.” As fact finder, the judge must consider the evidence and decide whether or not a certain fact has been proven. Because the trial judge has the opportunity to directly observe the evidence through witness testimony and documents, photos, etc., most appellate courts will very rarely second guess a judge’s factual findings. Therefore, a trial judge’s factual error is the most difficult to establish on appeal. Appellate courts will generally not overturn a factual finding unless it is clearly wrong (“erroneous”) and the record leaves absolutely no question that the judge was wrong.

The judge “abused his/her discretion”
A trial judge has a great deal of power to make decisions in a case, with the exception of decisions that are strictly about applying the law. Examples of this broad power, known as “judicial discretion,” include what evidence to admit during the trial, whether to grant a motion or request made by a party, and whether to grant a protection order or approve a proposed settlement agreement. Appellate courts respect the trial court judges’ discretionary power because they recognize that trial judges are in the best position to make these decisions. In general, an appeals court will go along with (“defer to”) a trial court judge’s decisions that are within the judge’s discretion.

Most types of errors will fall into this category of judicial discretion and they are very difficult to win on appeal, although not quite as difficult as in the case of factual errors. If a judge makes an error when using this discretion, it will not be a sufficient ground for appeal unless you can show that the judge “abused” this discretion. In “abuse of discretion” cases, the error is obvious because, for example, the evidence introduced at trial clearly does not support the judge’s decision or the judge’s decision was completely unreasonable. For example, let’s say in a custody case, when weighing the required factors to determine what is in the child’s best interests, the judge applies a lot of weight to the fact that the other party’s home has one more bedroom than yours, but applies very little weight to the fact that the other party has committed domestic violence and has a substance abuse problem.