If you are unhappy with the judge’s decision in your case, you have a right to appeal that decision to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. This higher court will review the trial court’s decision for errors.
You may wonder why most people do not appeal an adverse decision. Aside from the cost involved, it’s important to keep in mind that an appeal is always an uphill battle. Generally speaking, trial court findings of fact will be affirmed unless they are “clearly erroneous;” trial court discretionary acts (which are many in the family law realm) will be upheld if the trial court applied the proper standard of law to the relevant facts and reached a reasonable conclusion. Errors of law, however, are reviewed with no deference to the trial court’s decision.
While the Court of Appeals sometimes will correct the trial court’s error, more commonly the Court of Appeals will return the case to the trial court to correct the error. Sometimes this requires additional hearings before the trial court; sometimes not. Depending upon the circumstances, a party may request a different judge when the case returns to the trial court level.
A proceeding that is similar to an appeal but arises primarily in the context of family law is a hearing de novo. Many family law issues are heard and decided by family court commissioners, not by judges. If you are dissatisfied with a commissioner’s decision, you have a right to take your issue to the circuit court judge for a new hearing. Time limits for requesting a hearing de novo vary by county. Unlike appeals, hearings de novo are not limited to a review of the prior decision for errors; hearings de novo are supposed to be “from the beginning.” Once a circuit court judge has heard your case, you still have a right to appeal your case to the Court of Appeals.
The challenges involved in an appeal should not dissuade you from at least considering an appeal of an adverse decision. Litigants have successfully appealed issues related to divorce, paternity, custody, placement, child support, maintenance, and many other family law areas. Rather than rejecting an appeal automatically because of the cost and difficult standards, or pursuing an appeal automatically because you believe you have been wronged, consider discussing your potential appeal with an experienced family law appellate attorney. Attorney Kristen Lehker will consider your potential issues and the standard of the review the Court of Appeals would apply to each, and help you make an informed decision about whether an appeal is in your interest. Do not delay, as time limits for appeals are absolute.