Appeal Tips

WDC Journal Edition: Fall 2005
By: Beth Hanan - Gass Weber Mullins SC

Obtaining Copies of Briefs from Prior Cases

How often have you wanted to see the briefs behind an appellate decision you are analyzing? Often, calling a lawyer for one of the parties is not workable, or timely. Printing them from Westlaw or Lexis, if available there, can get expensive. Fortunately, the University of Wisconsin Law School and the State Law Library have created a website where you can see many Wisconsin appellate briefs quickly and at no cost.

The site is called Wisconsin Briefs. Go to http://library.law.wisc.edu/elecresources/databases/wb/ . That brings you to the search page. For best results, type in the appellate docket number (the system currently uses the older, 6-digit version). If you don’t have the docket number, you can enter the Wisconsin, Northwest or public domain citation. The next screen will display a listing of the briefs and appendices on file for that case, for both the court of appeals and supreme court. Amicus briefs and even letter briefs are available. Clicking on the particular document will bring up a scanned copy in pdf. form.

The website acknowledges that these documents are not searchable. But never fear. With a few clicks on your own computer, you can transform the imaged document into a searchable pdf. First, open the document, and save it to your hard drive. In the saved document, go to the Document tab on your Adobe toolbar. Scroll down and click on Paper Capture. Depending on the length of the brief or appendix, this operation may take a few minutes. “Paper capture” is an optical character recognition function. Once that operation is complete, re-save your document. It is now a searchable pdf.

Obtaining copies of briefs from an earlier case can offer a number of advantages. The briefs may reveal facts which influenced the decision, but which were not expressly recited. The imaged appendices may contain a full copy of the insurance policy or the contract at issue. On occasion you’ll find that someone else has already conducted, and supplied to the court, a lot of the legislative history you need on a particular statute. In rare instances, reading briefs in an earlier decision can even point to a flaw in that opinion’s reasoning.

A couple caveats. The briefs stored at the Wisconsin Briefs site go as far back as November, 1992, to volume 173 of Wis. 2d, for both published and unpublished decisions. Bear in mind that briefs for pending or very recent appeals are not available through this site. To get those, or to obtain copies of much older briefs, there are several options. Marquette Law School’s library is a repository for state appellate briefs going back to 1918. The University of Wisconsin Law School has briefs and appendices since 1846. Both libraries permit you to review the briefs at their facility. The state law library has supreme court briefs dating back to 1838, and court of appeals briefs since 1978. The state law library also offers a document delivery service, for a fee, via fax, mail or express delivery.

Neither the Wisconsin Briefs site, nor the state law library or law school libraries maintain briefs for appeals which were terminated prior to decision. Nor do those locations hold copies of petitions for review. Note, however, that in the future when the Wisconsin appellate courts begin to accept electronic filings, this site or the court’s own website may be able to offer additional documents. Until then, petitions for review and other filed documents can be obtained the old-fashioned way, in hard copy and for a fee from the clerk’s office.

See, e.g.Ives v. Coopertools, 208 Wis. 2d 55 at 74 n.10, 559 N.W.2d 571 (1997) (comparing factual assertion from amicus brief submitted in Sorge v. National Car Rental System, 182 Wis. 2d 52, 60 n.5, 512 N.W.2d 505 (1994) to mistaken factual recitation in Sorge opinion).