Date: January 22, 2003 Contact: Laura Kiernan

Court Public Information Officer

(603)-271-2646 x359







CONCORD---The New Hampshire Supreme Court announced today that it plans to dramatically expand the appellate review process and, for the first time since 1979, will automatically accept all direct appeals from the state’s trial courts.

The justices, under the current system, screen all requests for appeals filed by litigants and, based upon established criteria, decide which ones the court will accept or decline. That system of discretionary review, seen 24 years ago as a way to manage the Supreme Court’s burgeoning caseload, will now be set aside to allow for broader access to New Hampshire’s only appeals court.

"As a court, we believe that as a result of improvements and innovations in our case processing system, and elimination of our backlog we are ready and able to take this momentous step," Chief Justice David A. Brock said.

The expansion of appellate review will be implemented later this year with staff realignment and procedural and technical changes in court rules. The court expects to take this action without any immediate change in the judicial branch budget, Chief Justice Brock said.

Currently the court accepts for full briefing about 40 percent of the appeals. Court officials believe the change in procedure could more than double that number. The court’s action pertains only to direct appeals brought under Supreme Court Rule 7, which covers lower court decisions on the merits of a case. Other appeals not covered by Rule 7, such as appeals from rulings by state agencies, will not be affected by the change in procedure.

"We want the citizens of New Hampshire to have the opportunity not just to request an appeal, but to present in full every legal argument and supporting fact. This new system will accomplish that," Chief Justice Brock said.

Currently, the justices screen every case that is brought on appeal from a trial court, based upon a "notice of appeal" form and additional documents, including the lower court decision. The justices then decide whether to decline the case or take the case for full consideration. The decision to decline a case must be unanimous. Only capital murder cases are automatically accepted for review.

As a result of the significant changes announced today, the existing screening process will be eliminated for most appeals. Under the new system, the justices will decide each case after considering extensive legal arguments in written briefs, a printed transcript of the lower court proceeding, and in appropriate cases, oral argument.

New Hampshire’s current system of discretionary appellate review has been the subject of discussion and study since it was implemented in 1979. The most extensive examination was offered in a report prepared by a New Hampshire Bar Association committee following a 1999 conference on New Hampshire’s appellate system.

Chief Justice Brock noted today that the majority of the conference participants, in the words of their report, "felt the state should move toward a system in which all litigants enjoyed a right to some type of substantive review."

In announcing the court’s decision to expand appellate review, Chief Justice Brock said all members of the court wanted to commend the appellate conference committee, chaired by Attorney Peter G. Beeson, for "bringing to the forefront the important issues involving the appellate system in our state."

The legislature in 2001 created an "Appellate System Reform Commission" to continue study of issues related to the state’s appellate caseload. That commission, chaired by State Representative Robert H. Rowe, concluded in its final report that citizens who come to the justice system "should have a right to secure at least one level of appellate review."

"Improvements in court procedures over the past year, including use of its three-judge expedited process, elimination of the case backlog, scheduling innovations and the extraordinary efforts of the court staff made it possible for this expansion of appellate review," Chief Justice Brock said, speaking for the full court.

In October 2001, the court advised the Appellate Reform Commission that appellate review of all cases would require additional resources. When it became apparent that no additional funding would be available, the court, in an effort to address the commission’s goal that appellate review be expanded, initiated its own further study of the issue.

Justices and senior staff visited appellate courts in Maine and Vermont, both of which automatically accept most appeals. After review of the management processes in those two states, as well as ongoing implementation of substantial improvements in case management and internal operating procedures at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the justices decided to move forward with expanded appellate review.

Under the new procedures, once the Supreme Court is notified of an appeal, the court will order the parties to procure a transcript of the lower court proceedings, if necessary. Once the transcript is received, parties on each side will file written briefs setting forth the legal arguments on appeal. The Supreme Court will then decide whether the case should be scheduled for oral argument or decided on the briefs alone. The final decision of the court will be issued either in a brief order, an order with some explanation, or a full written opinion.

The Supreme Court disposed of 939 cases in 2002, reducing the court’s pending caseload to 388 cases, the lowest level since 1989, according to recently completed case processing statistics. There were 813 new cases filed in 2002, compared to 766 in 2001.

The court accepted 316 cases for full appellate review or 39 percent of the new cases filed. The justices issued 176 full written opinions in 2002 and another 98 orders with brief explanations of the court’s holding were issued following oral argument before a three-judge panel. The balance of the 939 cases was decided by various court orders.