Courts hold immense power when it comes to determining who can vote, how they can vote and how their vote is counted, so it’s important to stay up to date on what is happening in the legal world. When perusing Democracy Docket’s website, you’ll see mentions of hearings, trials and oral arguments in ongoing litigation. What’s the difference between these courtroom events and what can you expect at the conclusion of each?
Trial courts are finders of fact.
A lawsuit kicks off when a group or individual files a complaint at the lowest level of the court system: the U.S. district court for a federal lawsuit or a state trial court for a state lawsuit (throughout this piece, we’ll refer to courts in this first level as “trial courts”). Trial courts are responsible for resolving the issue(s) raised in the lawsuit by looking at the case-specific facts and applying legal reasoning and principles to them to determine which side is right based on those facts. There are multiple types of courtroom events, such as hearings or a trial, that may happen at the trial court level where the court acts as a finder of fact.
Before a case makes it to trial, both sides have the chance to file various motions to try and shape the trajectory of the case. You can read more about the types of motions you might see in a voting rights case in this piece. For any motion that’s filed, both sides have the option to file briefs outlining their positions on the motion. The judge may also schedule a hearing on a motion in which the parties will be able to present evidence and argue in favor of or against what the motion is seeking and the judge can ask questions. During these hearings, the judge can rule orally when the hearing concludes (known as a ruling from the bench) or issue a written order following the hearing. Hearings can last as long as one hour for straightforward motions, or for weeks for more complicated motions (such as for preliminary injunctions).
Following the motions stage, the largest courtroom event is usually a trial. During a trial, each side presents experts, witnesses and evidence to support their arguments. Normally, voting rights cases are heard by a standalone judge, and without a jury, in what’s known as a bench trial. After assessing all of the facts presented, the judge will determine if the allegations brought by the plaintiffs are true and, if so, what legal relief is warranted. This might mean that a voting law is upheld or blocked, determining which voting processes are in place for future elections and which voters can access the ballot box.
Appellate courts determine issues of law.
If a party disagrees with the outcome at the trial level, they can appeal it to a higher court, known as an appellate court. An appeal can come from an intermediate decision of the trial court, such as a preliminary injunction order, or the final decision of the trial court. In federal court, the appeal goes to a circuit court where three judges are randomly assigned to the case. The three-judge panel reads the parties’ briefs on the issues and their respective positions and then holds an oral argument where both parties present their sides. The exact rules and procedures for how an oral argument is conducted depend on the court, but each side generally gets 30 minutes total to argue, with the appellant(s) — the party that lost in the trial court and wants the appellate court to change the lower court’s decision — going first and the appellee(s) — the party that won in the trial court and wants the trial court’s decision to stay the same — going second. The judges can ask clarifying questions about each side’s position at any point during the oral argument.
The state court system largely mirrors the structure of the federal court system in that it is generally composed of three main levels that a case moves through: trial courts, state appellate courts and a state Supreme Court. In the latter two state court levels, oral arguments follow a similar framework as you see in federal appellate court.
A key distinction between a trial court and an appellate court is that, in an appellate court, the parties and judges are not arguing about the facts of the case. Fact finding is in the exclusive purview of the trial court. In contrast, an appellate court’s job is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly by the trial court. A preliminary injunction hearing or trial won’t be held in an appellate court. Rather, you might see an appeal of a decision following a hearing or trial so that the appellate court can review the trial court’s decision and determine if it’s in line with legal principles.
In summary, trial courts determine the facts of the case, while appellate courts determine issues of law and if legal principles were properly applied at the trial court level.
The U.S. Supreme Court has the final say on issues of law.
Parties that disagree with the decision made by a federal circuit court (meaning, the appellate court) can petition the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. Less frequently, parties can petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision made by a state Supreme Court if the case deals with a federal question.
Unlike intermediate appellate courts, which are required to take a case on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court has the ability to pick and choose what cases it hears. The Court typically accepts cases where there are conflicting decisions coming out of different circuits and/or there is a constitutional matter of national importance that needs to be resolved. If the Court adds a case to its merits docket (meaning, it decides to hear the case in full), the parties file briefs outlining their positions and then an oral argument is scheduled.
The Supreme Court’s term starts on the first Monday in October and typically runs until the end of June or the start of July of the following year; oral arguments generally wrap up in April and then the remaining months are used for opinion writing.
On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays during its term, the Supreme Court holds oral arguments. These proceedings are a pretty formal affair: The justices, dressed in long black robes, enter the chamber and take their seats. The chief justice sits at the center chair, the most senior associate justice sits to his right, then the next senior associate justice sits to his left and so on in alternating seats.
These arguments are typically an hour long, with each side getting 30 minutes total to argue. The petitioner(s) — the party that lost in the appellate court and wants the Supreme Court to change the appellate court’s decision — will speak first, followed by the respondent(s) — the party that won in the appellate court — and then it cycles back to the petitioner and respondent for any rebuttals, if they want. The justices are able to ask questions to clarify or expand on issues presented in the written briefs. Following an oral argument, a majority of the justices can affirm or reverse the decision of the appellate court and remand (send it back) to the lower court if necessary. While all opinions from the term are released before the Court goes into recess in late June or early July, there are no rules about when opinions have to be issued. Generally, opinions are handed down in May and June, but a unanimous decision might come earlier in the term.
Voting rights litigation often takes place at multiple levels of the court system.
Sometimes lawsuits can take years to resolve, while other times immediate relief is needed for an upcoming election. Each lawsuit defending the right to vote has its own trajectory based on the relief it is seeking, but now you know all of the basics of what to expect at each level of the court system.
We know firsthand that the U.S. court system can be confusing to understand. If you need to, check out the following resources for some additional information:
- Legal Jargon 101 for definitions of important legal terms
- The U.S. Court System Explained for a breakdown of how the U.S. court system works
- The Life Cycle of a Voting Rights Case for an overview of the typical trajectory of a voting rights lawsuit
Explore Democracy Docket’s Case pages and keep a close eye out for lawsuits that will determine the future of voting, elections and representation in the nation.