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What is an Amicus Brief?

Despite the name, a final judgment from a trial court is not always the end of a case. Appeal of the trial court judgment is often the next step in the timeline of a case. On appeal, typically, the Courts of Appeal are only restricted to the issues and factual record that were present in the trial court. That means no new evidence can be presented, and outside of a few exceptions, no new legal issues can be presented. Sometimes the appeal is based in a misinterpretation or a misapplication of law. Thus, many appeals focus on legal arguments and rely on old legal cases to argue how the law was misapplied. But at other times, the appellate court has an opportunity to set a new precedent or to distinguish the application of law to a set of facts. In these instances, there lies potential for far-ranging consequences of the Court’s decision. In such cases, interested organizations and attorneys will often want to weigh in on the matter, and attempt to persuade the Court. Remember that on appeal it is still plaintiff versus defendant, so these outside parties’ opinions may not always have any effect.

For example, if a case on appeal affects a large industry and how it can operate in the future, it often becomes a landmark in history. In those cases, interested organizations which support certain viewpoints in the industry will want to advocate for a certain outcome that is in their best interest. To do so, in this appellate example, they would file an Amicus Brief. Amicus Curiae is quite literally, a “friend of the Court.” And an Amicus Curiae’s brief can advocate for a certain outcome that is based on the facts of the case, or it can make the Court aware of other concerns that are not based on just the facts of the specific case. Either way, it is a way to influence the Court’s decision in big cases that have broad legal consequences.

In North Carolina, the Rules of Appellate Procedure 28(i) govern how an Amicus Curiae can file their brief. Amicus must first move for the Court to allow filing of a brief, including the nature of the interest in filing such a brief and the legal issue that the brief will address. Remember, while the parties to the case may be confined to only the legal issues from the trial court, an Amicus can possibly raise new legal issues that a Court’s decision could impact, although the Court is not required to address those issues. An Amicus Curiae must file their brief in the time allowed for the party which they support or, if they support neither party, within the time allowed for the appellee’s (party appealing) principal brief. Amicus must serve all parties to the appeal. And then parties to the case are allowed to reply to any Amicus brief they so choose. Oral arguments are a large component of appellate law, where one attorney will present their argument in front of Judges/Justices. Amicus can be afforded the opportunity to also request to orally present their arguments, but only in extraordinary situations will the request be granted.

Appellate decisions in big cases can have far-reaching and profound impact on the legal rights of many people. In those cases, the Court ought to be aware of the impact, and people that can be caught in the impact ought to have the ability to make their voices heard. Amicus briefs are one way to do so.