It's in your Court: Your lawyer is your advocate, not your ‘muscle’

Judges are so “opinionated” because in most civil cases they are required to detail the factual basis and legal reasoning for their decision in a written opinion. In the vast majority of criminal cases, other than pretrial motions to suppress evidence or dismiss a criminal charge or a court trial on the charge, the judge is not required to file “findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order,” the explanation for the judge’s decision. This may leave some citizens charged with a petty misdemeanor, misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charge (none of which can involve a prison sentence) wondering why the judge found them guilty or not guilty following a court (no jury) trial or why the judge rendered a particular sentence. Frequently the judge will verbally explain the decision, but the volume of such non-felony cases makes it impractical for the judge to be required to prepare a written opinion in every case.

In most contested civil cases decided by a judge and not a jury, the judge must prepare written findings of fact. An example would be a traffic accident in which one party was alleged to have been speeding or failed to obey a traffic light. The judge’s findings of fact would indicate what the judge found to have occurred, for example, “Defendant was driving her vehicle at 70 mph, in excess of the posted speed limit of 55 mph, when her vehicle rear-ended the Plaintiff’s vehicle.” In a family law case a finding of fact may be, “Petitioner is employed at XYZ Corp. and earns a gross monthly income of $3000.”

The judge’s order will also include “conclusions of law,” that is, how the law applies to the facts as found by the judge. In the first scenario above, the judge could conclude, “Defendant was negligent, driving her vehicle at an illegal and unsafe speed, causing the collision with Plaintiff’s vehicle and being the proximate cause of the injuries that Plaintiff sustained.” In the second scenario, after more extensive findings of fact about the number of children and the other party’s income, the conclusion of law might be, “That under the child support guidelines the Petitioner’s child support obligation is $700 per month.”

In most family law cases the judge is required to make detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law, not only so the parties understand the basis for the decision, but also so that the appellate court can review whether the findings of fact are support by the evidence at trial, and whether applying the applicable law (both statutory and case law) to the facts the judge made the right decision. For example, in a contested custody case the judge must make detailed findings of fact on 13 factors, therefore those opinions often run to several dozen pages. Not infrequently the appellate court remands cases to the trial courts for more detailed findings of fact.

While judges must render a detailed opinion in most civil cases, juries are not required to render verdicts in great detail. In criminal cases nearly all verdicts will be “guilty” or “not guilty” without any explanation being allowed. In civil cases juries are often required to complete a special verdict form detailing, for example, whether either or both parties were negligent, to what percentage of negligence did each party contribute to the collision, whether their negligence was a direct cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries and damages, and itemizing the damages (if any) being awarded to the Plaintiff. The jury need not and cannot further explain how it arrived at the verdict.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Mel Dickstein prior to retirement wrote in an article in Minnesota Lawyer as follows:

“Imagine how terrifying our system of justice would be if judges made decisions without explanation. In Family Court, judges would divide up property, and award child custody, without giving any reason for their choices. In civil cases, judges would resolve business disputes, and determine personal responsibility for accidents, without explanation. In criminal cases judges would make important rulings regarding a defendant’s constitutional rights without stating a basis for the decision.

“We wouldn’t stand for such a system because we want to know that decisions are fairly reached. We want an explanation for how the judge reached his or her decision . . . .

“What I think is so wonderful about our system is that we come to a clear understanding of the law when opinions are well written and clearly expressed. A reader, following the arc of the decisions in this case, knows how the ultimate decision was made—what arguments were considered and accepted and rejected. It leads to a respect for the law, whether or not you agree with it. That’s how our law develops, and one way we assure respect for the process—it’s the reason we write legal decisions; sometimes very long ones.”

 JUDGE STEVE HALSEY,  Wright County District Court, is chambered in Buffalo and is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at WWW.QCTV.org. Go to Community and click “The District Court Show.” 

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