Appealing - court penalty question

Just a random question that occurred to me, and I’m not sure how to look it up.

From Wikipedia:

If the appellate court decides that the lower court made one of these errors, does the lower court judge get reprimanded at all? Are there any penalties or follow-ups to this? If so, I’ve never heard about it.

Or, if the appellate court decides that one of the attorneys caused a reversible error, would that attorney be investigated or debarred or anything?

I’m just curious because I am taking a law class and the teacher is trying to cover 8 months of material in 8 weeks so he is glossing over everything and I don’t want to slow the rest of the class down by asking a question every 10 minutes.

For ordinary, run of the mill errors - no.

Judges don’t like to be reversed, but apart from the professional opprobium that attaches to being frequently reversed, there is no penalty. The “errors” reversed by the higher courts are not generally considered the kind of thing that engender professional sanctions.

Similarly, an attorney’s vigorous advocacy, even if it found on appeal to be error, is not something that earns sanctions.

That said, conduct can cross the line. An attorney can be sanctioned by the trial judge for violating rulings or crossing the line of decorum in the court. Very rarely, an appeals court’s opinion will have harsh words for the trial judge, and they can refer egregious conduct to the state’s commission on judicial conduct.

I agree with Bricker. Most of the time, an appellate court will just refer to the lower court in a general matter, and conclude that the court was in error, without focusing on the individual lower court judge. However, once in a rare while an appellate court will refer to the actions of lower court judge in a particularly personal manner (which you can tell from reading comparable opinions of the appellate cout) either for opprobium or praise. If the appellate court criticizes the lower court judge in this manner, it can be seen to be a bit of a reprimand.

I the vast majority cases, however, a finding of error or even abuse of discretion by a lower court is just one of those run-of-the-mill things that happens in the system that appellate courts are there to correct.

On the other hand, the state judiciaries have a mechanism for the review of judicial conduct under judicial ethics rules and other applicable law. When these tribunals find a violation, they may officially reprimand a judge or impose other penalties up to removal from the bench. Since federal judges are appointed for life during “good behavior”, they are largely immune from official criticism, except that they may be removed from office by the Senate after impeachment, a rare penalty absent gross improprieties or criminality.

As said, run-of-the mill errors are a bit of a black eye, but no, there’s not really any formal penalty. Some, maybe even most, may not even rise to the level of black eye and just be areas where “reasonable minds may differ.” I even saw one reported opinion where a U.S. District Judge in Dallas made note that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed him the last time he made a ruling in a case similar to the one before him, but said he was making the same ruling nonetheless. Basically he was saying “I was reversed last time I ruled this way, but I’m doing it again beacause you appellate court jackasses are applying the law incorrectly.” It was that delightful mixture of learned and crotchety that only lifetime tenure brings about.

Somewhat more surprising is judicial immunity from personal suit that can apply even in cases of serious and intentional wrongdoing. In the case of Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349 (1978), a judge allowed the sterilization of a slightly retarded 15 year old girl in an ex parte proceeding with no hearing, no notice, and no attorney ad litem. The girl did not even realize she had been sterilized after the operation was complete; she was told that she was having her appendix removed. The Supreme Court ruled that he was immune from damages for deprivation of civil right even if he was acting in error, maliciously, or in excess of his authority, so long as he was arguably acting within his jurisdiction. That’s a very, very extreme example, but it gives you the idea of how far judicial immunity can reach.

On the other hand, I assume a judge can be held in contempt for refusing to abide by a writ of mandamus, but I don’t know any judges that crazy.

Many reversals are not exactly an error, just a different interpretation of the law. As Pravnik said, “reasonable minds may differ”. But sometimes they are actual errors, indicating that the trial judge either didn’t know better, or disregarded precedent.

But if that happens repeatedly, there may be actions taken. Informally, often quietly, without public notice.

I’ve know of cases where Appeals or Supreme Court Justices spoke privately to the Chief Judge of the county, and suggested that a certain Judge be reassigned to Civil Court, business & commerce cases, where he’d be less likely to get into trouble.

But I have seen at least one case where, during an election campaign, one judge was attacked as having been “reversed more times than any judge on the county bench”. So it can be used against a Judge that way, for judges who stand for election periodically.