On the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, convened at Missouri Western State University in Spratt Hall. The panel heard three oral arguments and took questions from the audience of students.
The panel consisted of Presiding Judge Lisa White Hardwick, Judge Thomas Chapman and Judge Janet Sutton. There were four cases submitted to the court: a civil case, a juvenile case, and a criminal case. The fourth case was submitted on brief and was not argued orally.
The civil case, Donald Brooks v. William J. Laurie and Crown Center Farms, Inc., dealt with a dispute between the two parties. On Aug. 31, 2015, Laurie cut down a tree that struck Brooks on the head, causing serious injuries. Brooks is claiming negligence and premises liability against Crown Center Farms.
The juvenile case, K.D.D. v. Juvenile Officer, follows the case where K.D.D. was driving and collided with another vehicle, causing the death of a person in the opposite car. K.D.D. is appealing the previous decision for K.D.D. to be prosecuted as an adult.
The criminal case, Charles L. Coats v. the State of Missouri, handles a case in which Coats was originally convicted of first-degree murder. Coats shot Jason Ginn, a neighbor, at the height of an argument. In the appeal, Coats argues he fired in self-defense to reduce his sentence to a lesser one.
Monty Smith, an associate professor and Forensics Graduate Program director, expanded on the criminal case and spoke about what he believes the outcome will be.
“I was a police officer, detective, homicide detective, I was a defense attorney – that’s not going to fly,” Smith said. “Coats was the aggressor, he continued to be the aggressor, he was unreasonable in his actions, and he’s not going to win on self-defense, so that case is a loser. His conviction, I believe, is going to be affirmed by the Court of Appeals and he’s going to do whatever time he got in Buchannan County Circut Court.”
The Court of Appeals, Western District, handles 500 to 600 cases a year, tackling some of the region's most challenging and fascinating legal cases. In a trial court, judgment is assumed to be correct, but naturally, errors occur. If a losing party believes these mistakes altered the outcome of the case, they may appeal the case to the appellate court.
These appeals are far from retrials. Appeals are strictly legal arguments during which appellants can review information, but the specific facts or evidence of the case are not up for debate. Judges only interpret where the law is unsettled or unclear.
Decisions made in the court of appeals set what is known as precedent, or the authority judges turn to in future cases. The entire process is critical to the legal system, and these decisions serve as the baseline for decades to come.
Suzanne Kissock, professor and chair of the department of criminal justice and legal studies, spoke about the weight the court of appeals holds.
“I thought we got a wonderful cross-section of what the court does: employment law, criminal law, juvenile law,” Kissock said. “… That seems like simple issues, but from a legal issues standpoint, the decisions that the court will make are going to affect hundreds, if not thousands of cases.”
The Court of Appeals, Western District, usually sits in Kansas City but frequently travel to other locations to give the public a chance to observe the proceeding to maintain transparency in the court.
For Missouri Western, it gives legal studies students the perfect opportunity to see what the field is like beyond their schooling. Smith spoke about the benefits of hosting the court of appeals on campus.
“There are students interested in political science, and it’s very interesting for them and educational for them to attend the proceeding and see how it works,” Smith said. “… And really just to students generally, as citizens, young people who are going to be going out in the world to have an idea of how the court system really works.”
Kissock emphasized that the court of appeals is a prime example of applied learning. She also spoke about how crucial it is for citizens to interact with their courts and how that strengthens democracy.
Kissock explained, “If people see it up close and personal, meet these judges, see there's diversity on the court – that's important that they say, ‘Okay, a woman is part of that discussion. A person of color is part of that discussion. So I can better rely on the fact that these are representatives of the people of this state.’”
During the brief questionnaire at the end of the session, Judge Hardwick mentioned a very similar point. She spoke about how impactful it is to meet the judges in-person and see diversity first-hand.
“When I was thinking of being a lawyer as a child, I never thought about being a judge,” Hardwick said. “People that look like me were not judges. That’s just not something that I saw as a possiblity.”
Hardwick continued to tell her story of how she decided to become a judge after ten years of practicing as a lawyer and explained how the position functions.
“I was in a trial, and I noticed what the judge did and the roll the judge played, and I said, ‘That’s exactly what I want to be able to do,’” Hardwick said. “To not have to take a case because a client walks in and says, ‘Here’s what I want you to argue on my behalf,’ but to be able to take a case and decide yes or no, right or wrong, based on what the law is.”
Missouri Western hosts the Court of Appeals, Western District, once a year. The school encourages students to attend and get involved with local and state governments.