May 01, 2017

One Day in the Life of One State Court Appellate Judge

By Judge Samuel A. Thumma

What does a typical day for a state court appellate judge involve? Well, each day has some similarities and some differences and every day, of course, is unique. This makes it hard to round off at the corners to describe precisely what a “typical” day involves. So, to give some feel for what a day in my life as an appellate judge is like, I went back to my calendar for November 2016. And in doing so, Tuesday, November 29, 2016, was the last day that month where I participated in conference, when we get together as a panel of judges to consider cases. So, this article describes my Tuesday, November 29, 2016, as a proxy for what my days are like. But before describing that day, let me start with some information about the court on which I serve.

An Overview of the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One

The Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One, is based in Phoenix. Division One is an intermediate state court of appeals created about 50 years ago. Over time, the number of appeals to Division One has increased substantially. As a result, the court has grown from the original three judges to 16 judges, and now typically resolves from 2,500 to 3,000 appeals each year.

Division One hears appeals from eight counties in Arizona, and the geographic area the court serves is larger than about 35 states. Division One is bordered by Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico on the east. Division One hears appeals from the Maricopa County Superior Court, one of the busiest state trial courts in the country with approximately 160 judicial officers in the fourth-largest county, by population, in the United States. Division One also hears appeals from the La Paz County Superior Court, which has one judge in a county where approximately 20,000 people live.

Division One is a court of general jurisdiction, hearing appeals from civil, criminal, family, juvenile, probate, state and local tax, and mental health matters from the Superior Court; appeals from administrative decisions (including challenges to workers’ compensation and unemployment decisions), as well as certain appeals from limited-jurisdiction courts, such as justice and municipal courts. Division One also considers challenges to interlocutory orders in what Arizona calls special actions, variously referred to as writs of certiorari, mandamus, prohibition, and otherwise in other jurisdictions. The geographic coverage of Division One is enormous; the communities it serves are amazingly diverse in many different respects and the cases involve a wide variety of divergent legal issues.

Division One sits in panels of three judges, typically holding conferences and hearing oral argument once a week. Typically, judges on Division One have two law clerks and a judicial assistant, who serves as office manager, scheduler, traffic cop, and a whole bunch of other things. The court also has a staff attorneys’ office, which helps in researching and drafting in some cases, does jurisdictional screening, helps with motions filed on appeal, and works on various other aspects of appeals and court matters. The clerk of court’s office processes appeals, as well as the court’s decisions, and provides numerous other services, including technology support.

A party dissatisfied with a Division One decision can seek review by the Arizona Supreme Court, which is the final word on issues of Arizona law. But such review is discretionary and the Arizona Supreme Court accepts review in less than 2 percent of Division One decisions. So, in most cases, Division One decisions are the final word.

With this background, let’s turn to November 29, 2016.

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