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What does “Trial Court Discretion” mean?

After your case is over, there may be discussion about appealing the Judge’s findings. Many people assume that they can appeal a ruling in the hopes that a different judge will see things differently and rule in their favor. However, an appeal is not a “rehearing” of your case, but rather focuses on whether the trial court judge applied legal standards correctly. While it is possible to get a “rehearing,” the appellate judge will not be the one to make the final decisions. The appellate judge’s job is essentially to review whether the trial court judge acted properly and correctly applied the law. Even if the appellate judge disagrees with the trial court’s findings, he or she must still uphold them if the judge acted appropriately. If the appellate judge finds that the trial judge did not properly apply the law, the case will be sent back to the trial court for a rehearing on the matters specified by the appellate court.

In order to be successful on appeal, then, the litigant must show that either the trial judge incorrectly interpreted the law, or “abused his or her discretion” when deciding factual issues involving the evidence presented. “Abuse of discretion” essentially means that if a reasonable person looked at the same facts, there is no way they could have made the same findings that the trial court Judge made – the finding must be “clearly erroneous.” For example, an abuse of discretion may exist where a Judge finds that a man is not the biological father of a child, despite a valid paternity test showing that he is beyond a 99.9% probability. But an abuse of discretion does not exist in cases such as the Judge finding that one party is more credible than another, or where the Judge doesn’t think a piece of evidence is as important as you think it should be.

Additionally, even if the Judge made a “clearly erroneous” finding, the litigant still must show that if the Judge had not made that mistake, a different outcome would have occurred. For example, if the Judge made a finding that a residence was purchased 4 years after the date of marriage rather than 2 years after the date of marriage and ordered that the residence be sold and the proceeds split equally, the fact that the Judge was wrong about the date of the purchase won’t change the outcome of a 50/50 division between the parties. Such an error doesn’t affect the outcome, and is known as a “harmless error.”

Thus, unless it's clearly obvious, it’s very difficult to get a case overturned on appeal based upon a factual decision. The trial judge you are in front of has great latitude to make certain findings, discredit a witness’ testimony, and make inferences and conclusions from evidence presented. Given the broad brush of authority the trial judge has, and the difficult of overcoming factual findings, many parties opt to settle their cases in advance.

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