January 01, 2014

Writing Appellate Decisions Observations of a Rookie Appellate Judge

By Judge Samuel A. Thumma

After 15 years in private practice and nearly five years as a trial judge, I just completed my first year of service as an appellate judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals. During that time, I read perhaps a thousand briefs in hundreds of cases and wrote nearly 100 decisions. My rookie year as an appellate judge has been a crash course on writing appellate decisions.

Although helped by concepts applicable to any good writing, writing an appellate decision is a unique style of writing. Appellate decisions are written in the same language as legal briefs, but in a very different and distinct dialect. Unlike legal briefs, there are no crisp rules for what is required in an appellate decision. In the rule-bound world of appellate litigation, it is no small irony that appellate decisions are nearly rule-less.

This article shares some observations from my rookie year on the art, science, and idiosyncrasy of writing appellate decisions. In doing so, some substantial caveats are in order: Every case is unique, every judge is different, almost every suggestion has exceptions, and what may work for nearly all cases doesn’t work for others. I also do not claim to be a gifted writer in any respect. When I do provide clarity in writing, my best hope is to do so in a meat and potatoes sort of way. Finally, the views here are mine alone based on my own observations. With these significant limitations, here are some of my observations on writing appellate decisions based on my rookie year as an appellate judge.

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