Achieving a Supreme Court Victory

To effectively represent clients, an attorney must totally understand the laws in which they specialize and expertly manage what takes place during a case and trial. To handle appeals, an attorney needs even more knowledge and skill. They need to successfully convince multiple judges that that other courts did not properly follow the law. They must prepare complex briefs and prepare oral arguments, for which they have little time to present. Taking a case to the appeals court is risky and costly. Taking an appeal to the state supreme court involves even more risk and cost. The attorney who appeals a case, especially one to the high court, must strongly believe it involves a crucial legal issue that will impact their client and all similarly situated clients.

That’s exactly how Thomas D. Bumgardner felt about a matter involving his client, Andrea Kirby Crowell. When the trial court made an unfavorable decision against Ms. Crowell, he appealed to the Court of Appeals. Unsatisfied with that ruling, he appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where he secured a decision that favored Ms. Crowell

Let’s first examine the North Carolina appeals process and see why it’s important.

The North Carolina Courts

The United States Constitution sets forth the supreme law of our country and describes how our national government works. It divides the government into three branches: (Executive, Judicial, and Legislative) and defines how each branch functions. The judicial branch involves the federal courts. Every state within the nation also has its own unique and separate constitution that does precisely the same.

The North Carolina Constitution divides the Judicial Branch into three basic divisions:

  1. District Court: trial courts that hear low level crimes and certain civil cases.
  2. Superior Court: trial courts that hear felony crimes and certain civil cases.
  3. Appellate: hears appeals from the District and Superior Courts. Includes the Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court.

All courts primarily deal with criminal and civil matters. Civil matters include personal injury and family matters.

Importance of Appeals in Civil Matters

The right to appeal a civil matter is extremely important. It promotes procedure consistency, fosters doctrine improvement, and encourages rule of law appreciation. Most importantly, it allows aggrieved parties to rectify legal inaccuracies.

Appealing Civil Court Decisions

Appeals court justices assess whether the lower courts committed errors in in applying the laws. They do not examine new evidence or hear new witness testimony. The petitioner or appellant is the appealing party and the respondent or appellee is the answering party. The majority vote between the justices controls the decision and disagreeing justices may issue dissenting or disagreeing opinions.

Court of Appeals

Either party may appeal a final civil court decision to the Court of Appeals. Three judges hear each case. They usually decides matters on attorney submitted briefs (legal arguments) and the record. Sometimes, they hear oral arguments. If the court affirms or agrees with the lower court’s judgment or dismisses the appeal, such ends the matter and the lower court decision stands. If the court disagrees with the lower court’s judgement and/or agrees with the appellant’s arguments, it could reverse or overturn the lower court decision and, thus, grant the appeal (it could also impose other directions).

The Court of Appeals may issue a published or an unpublished opinion. If the panel feels that the matter does not involve any new legal doctrines and would serve no precedential purpose, it may mark the decision unpublished. An unpublished decision, thus, has no controlling legal authority and no one can rely on it as a source a legal decision. (See Stare Decisis below)

North Carolina Supreme Court

Under certain conditions, a party may appeal a Court of Appeals decision to the
North Carolina Supreme Court, which can decide the cases it will hear. It orally hears all arguments. The North Carolina State Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort – parties cannot appeal its decisions on state law matters. The court can agree with the Court of Appeal’s decision or overturn or reverse it (or impose other directions).

All North Carolina State Supreme Court Decisions have binding legal authority on all lower state court decisions. They also have binding legal authority on federal courts reviewing state diversity matters. (See Stare Decisis below)

Stare Decisis

Stare decisis is a legal doctrine compelling courts to observe precedent or prior decisions. It makes sure the courts consistently apply law and treat parties equally regardless of individual views. Many crucial decisions impact policy, procedure, and result in common law, which is judicially interpreted rather than legislatively set, so following precedent is vitally important.

If a State Supreme Court decision overturns a decision or precedent made by a lower court, the new ruling becomes stare decisis on all lower courts.

Crowell v. Crowell

The Crowell v. Crowell Supreme Court decision is now legally binding on all lower court decisions.

Part 2 will examine the case.

There are strict deadlines and rules regarding appeals of final decisions in family matters. If you are interested in discussing such an appeal, contact Thomas D. Bumgardner right away. He knows the applicable laws and can help you determine your best course of action. Call 704-887-4981 or email info@ballantynelegal.com. Learn about the legal services he provides and book an appointment.