The Washington High School Auditorium was transformed into a courtroom on Thursday, April 4, as the Iowa Court of Appeals heard two cases.
Generally, these cases are heard at the Capitol building in Des Moines; however, according to Judge Michael R. Mullins, of Washington, cases can be heard in other locations as well.
Kurt Trout, science teacher at Washington High School, said he was glad for his students to have the opportunity to sit in on the proceedings because it’s an opportunity they may not get elsewhere.
“I just think it’s important because anytime you see something, you understand something,” he said. “I’m a science teacher, so when I’m able to show kids something, they understand it.”
He said kids are visual learners and by letting them see how the process works they get a more solid understanding of what goes on in a courtroom and do not just visualize it how television presents court to look. Trout said by introducing students to new things, like the appellate court process, they are able to understand a little more of how the world works and see different jobs in action.
“This is how it really actually works and these are real people that at one point, these judges and lawyers probably sat in an auditorium just like this as 16-year-olds and watched the same thing,” he said. “I think it’s important to see that these are people just like us.”
Judge Mullins explained the judges were already going to be at the University of Iowa speaking to law students that day and requested the cases be heard in Washington to allow for the public to have a chance to sit in and see how the process works.
The court of appeals is made up of a panel of judges selected by the governor and hears cases passed down to it from the Iowa Supreme Court.
When a verdict is handed down from a smaller court, the guilty party has the option to appeal if they do not agree with the conviction. That appeal is sent to the Iowa Supreme Court. If they choose not to hear the argument, it is handed to the court of appeals.
“There’s just nine of us to review any case appealed in the state of Iowa,” Chief Judge Gayle Vogel explained. The average number of cases the appellate court sees per year ranges from 1,200 to 1,400.
Two tables were set up on either end of the stage with the judges sitting together at a larger table. Each lawyer had 10 minutes to explain their case and the defense was given an additional five minutes to rebut. While the lawyers argued their case, the judges asked questions based on the briefs provided by the lawyers. The judges were not trying to determine guilt, as that was already decided in trial court. Their job was to determine if the verdict need be overruled or not.
The first of two cases heard was State v. Brown, a case from Black Hawk County where Destiny Brown was appealing her case after being stopped in a routine traffic stop. There was no license plate on Brown’s vehicle; however, she says the registration the officer was seeking was in the vehicle’s rear window.
Upon asking for her driver’s license, the officer learned it was suspended and that there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest. After searching her vehicle, officers found illegal substances and Brown was charged with numerous offenses.
The lawyer representing Brown’s case was appealing the suspicion of the officer to continue to ask for registration, stating the officer could have seen the registration in the window and therefore should have sent Brown on her way.
The second case, Whitlow v. McConnaha, out of Muscatine County, involved Marsha Whitlow who was injured when the motorcycle she was a passenger on attempted to pass a tractor driven by Ron McConnaha. Whitlow sued McConnaha, who in turn sued the driver of the motorcycle, Whitlow’s fiance, Timothy Newton. Whitlow then amended her lawsuit to allege a claim of negligence against Newton, as well.
After the trial, the jury found McConnaha not at fault. However, the case reached the appellate level after Whitlow alleged the jury did not complete a form that asked if Newton was at fault.
The first question on the form asked about the fault of McConnaha. If the answer to the question was no, the jury was instructed not to answer any more questions. However, Whitlow felt the form was incomplete because the second question, asking about the fault of Newton, was never answered.
Following each hearing, the audience was given the chance to ask questions about the appellate court process. Judge Mullins answered several including offering an explanation as to how long it takes to come up with a ruling.
“We will come to a decision and try to have that out within four to six weeks from oral arguments,” he said.
Chief Judge Vogel expanded on that, saying, “We try to get cases out for one reason: people need to know how their cases turn out.”
Judge Mullins explained the process takes extra time because each judge lives in a different part of the state and they use a variety of communication techniques to stay together such as video calls, email and getting together in person. In some cases, it takes additional time for the lawyers to find time in their schedules to make the arguments.
In the State v. Brown case, the attorneys were from the state and with the Department of Justice and the State Public Defenders Office. They explained that other people represented their clients in court and they only try cases in appellate court.
The opposite was true for the next case, Whitlow v. McConnaha, where the lawyers making the appeal were the lawyers for the case when it went to trial.
Because the Court of Appeals is a “high-volume court,” Judge Mullins explained they do not have the means to record like the Iowa Supreme Court does.
“We just take notes based on arguments made,” he explained, also noting the lawyers will file hundreds of pages in briefing to further explain their case.
As chief, Judge Vogel is in charge of choosing which cases are heard for oral arguments. She said her office looks carefully to see which cases would help those working in the court in the future as they look for examples of cases to help defend their own.
“We try to pick those cases that we think would really benefit,” she said.