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Lessons in appeals process for lawyers and public

Thursday, November 13, 2008 | 7:10 p.m. CST; updated 10:16 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 13, 2008

COLUMBIA — While the purpose of hearing appeals cases in Boone County on Wednesday was to teach the public about the appeals court process, it also served as a lesson for lawyers. Half of those giving arguments were appearing before the Missouri Court of Appeals for the first time.

"Is there anyone I haven't met yet?" Judge Victor C. Howard asked before the proceedings began.

That conversational tone continued as five attorneys came forward and introduced themselves to Howard, Joseph M. Ellis and Alok Ahuja, the three Kansas City appeals court judges. One by one, the new lawyers stated names, hometowns and educational backgrounds.

For the past 17 years, judges from the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals have traveled to circuit courts across northwest and central Missouri. At least once a year, one of those stops is Columbia. The proceedings are usually held in Kansas City. On Wednesday, the court heard arguments on five appeals cases, two of which originated in Boone County.

Each lawyer is given 10 minutes to present his or her case, then the appellant side is given additional time for a rebuttal. The judges can interrupt the arguments at any point to ask questions. In special circumstances, like in the last case on Wednesday's docket, attorneys are given 15 minutes to argue.

Columbia attorney Melissa Faurot, who is representing the respondent in a custody case, said she was nervous about Wednesday. Although she has been practicing law since 2003 when she graduated from MU's School of Law, it was her first time arguing an appeal before the judges.

"It's kind of hard to know what to expect on your first time," she said.

Faurot said she practiced her argument over and over but that it's hard to anticipate judges' questions. To calm her nerves, Faurot said she turned to other attorneys who had gone through the process before, such as the partners at her firm. The biggest piece of advice she received from her colleagues was simple: Just know your case.

Faurot's case was a maternity and custody dispute between a same-sex couple. The two women each conceived a child using an anonymous sperm donor. The two separated in 2005 and the children, a boy and a girl, are now 4 and 7 years old. In January 2007, one of the women, Leslea Diane White, filed a petition for a declaration of maternity, order of custody and order of child support. After several hearings, a Boone County Circuit Court judge dismissed the case. White later appealed that decision.

Attorney Susan Sommer, who was also appearing before the appeals court for the first time, argued on White's behalf. Her argument was that White should be considered a natural parent to the older child since she was the intended parent before conception, though she is not biologically related.

Faurot represented Elizabeth Michelle (White) Crowe, the respondent. In her arguments, she said that White didn't have the right to bring a custody claim to the court at all because she is a third party, not a biological parent.

"I kind of expected a few more questions," Faurot said, after her case had finished. "It pretty much went exactly as everyone told me it would go."

Faurot doesn't have any other pending appeals cases but said she will likely work on an upcoming appeal a partner from her firm is arguing.

The other Boone County case on the docket Wednesday was an insurance suit against Shelter Mutual Insurance. Jean Griffin lived at Lenoir Health Care Center in Columbia until she died in February 2005. While she was alive, Shelter had changed an underlying eligibility policy, which denied Griffin coverage, differentiating between custodial care and skilled nursing care.

Thomas Schneider argued on behalf of her estate that the change was an amendment to the insurance plan. If this were true, Shelter would have been required to get approval from its board of directors and notify Griffin. Neither of these happened.

On behalf of Shelter, Bruce Farmer argued that the change was only an interpretation of the insurance plan and did not count as an actual amendment, meaning the change didn't need to go through the board of directors.

At the end of the proceedings Wednesday, five cases had been submitted to the appeals court, five new lawyers had been initiated into the system and the three judges returned to Kansas City. They will make a decision on each case in about 60 days.


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