Readers of these articles will have noticed that many of them deal with recent New Hampshire Supreme Court decisions. The purpose of this article is to explain, briefly, the role of the state Supreme Court in New Hampshire’s legal system and what an appeal to that court entails. The NH Supreme Court is the highest court in the state system and oversees all other courts. It is composed of a Chief Justice and four associate justices and sits in Concord.
The other courts are collectively known as the trial courts and include district court, probate court, superior court, and, in some counties, the family division. As the names suggest, the trial courts are responsible for resolving the initial dispute between the parties. The trial court hears the testimony from witnesses and reviews the documents or other evidence the parties introduce. When the case before the trial court is concluded, the judge or jury will reach a decision.
Under New Hampshire law, if a party is dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court, it has the right to appeal the decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The aggrieved party must be file the appeal within a specific time or the Court will dismiss the case.
While the Supreme Court is also a trial court in limited circumstances, most of its function is as an appellate court (which means a court that deals with appeals). When it acts as an appellate court, it does not hear witnesses nor does it receive new evidence. Instead, its task is to review what occurred in the trial court to make sure that the proper law was applied and that the proceedings were fair. The Supreme Court may review a transcript (the written record of the parties and witness testimony) of the trial court proceedings, as well as copies of the exhibits introduced before the trial court and the written pleadings submitted to the trial court. In an appeal, each side is allowed to file written arguments, known as briefs to explain their position. Do not be fooled by the name — briefs are usually anything but brief, a point made by writer Franz Kafka, who defined a lawyer as “a person who writes a 10,000-word document and calls it a brief.” A brief typically sets out the facts of the case and a party’s legal arguments. These arguments must be supported by legal authority and precedent, such as statutes, regulations, and previous court decisions. The Supreme Court may but is not required to ask, the parties to appear for oral argument. Oral arguments last no more than fifteen minutes and are an exchange between the Supreme Court justices and the appealing party or their attorney debating the merits of the legal positions. The Court will not make a decision at the end of oral arguments. In most cases the Court will consider the matter and issue a written decision at a later date. A copy of this decision is sent to all parties involved. A copy of the decision is often published on the Supreme Court’s website and in bound volumes of decisions called the New Hampshire Reports.
Andrew J. Piela is a Director at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. Mr. Piela concentrates his practice in civil litigation, family law, probate and land use litigation. You can reach Attorney Piela by e-mail at [email protected]