Just who are ‘friends of the court?’
Vail, CO, Colorado
The court has friends. Lots of them in fact. They’re known as amicus curiae, Latin for “friend of the court.”
Bells might be ringing in your head and with good reason. Perhaps you’ve heard of the papal curia. “Curia” in medieval and later Latin means “court.” While in the context of the papacy, the term has come to be used more in the sense of a royal court than a court of law, the word origin is the same. The papal or Roman Curia is the administrative apparatus of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church.
While sharing the Latin origin, an amicus curiae is a different beast entirely. Before unveiling the beast’s taxonomy, however, a little context is in order.
In a lawsuit, there are “parties.” A party to a legal action is a person whose name is designated on the record as a plaintiff or defendant. Nothing to celebrate at all, really.
“Party” is a technical word in law, having a precise meaning. It refers to those by or against whom a legal suit is brought. All others affected by action of the court are persons interested, but not parties. And this is where “amicus” come in.
A person with a strong interest in, or with views on, the subject matter of a particular action may petition the court for permission to file a brief, ostensibly on behalf of one party or another, but actually to suggest a rationale consistent with its own views.
Such briefs are most commonly filed in appeals concerning matters of broad public interest, for example, in civil rights cases.
A brief is a written statement, generally prepared by counsel, arguing a case in court and containing a summary of the facts of the case, citing pertinent law, and advancing an argument of how the law applies to the facts in support of the position taken.
Amicus briefs may be filed by private persons or entities or by a governmental body.
An example is in order.
Recently, a Denver trial court ruled that Senate Bill 199 was unconstitutional. That 2007 law amended the Colorado School Finance Act and affected property taxes in 175 of the 178 school districts in Colorado. The bill had implications affecting a state constitutional amendment known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, known more commonly by the acronym TABOR.
The parties to the action included the Mesa County Commissioners and certain taxpayers as plaintiffs and the State Department of Education and Gov. Bill Ritter. The defendants lost and took the matter on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, where it is currently pending.
The implications of the Mesa County case may be far-reaching. If the decision is upheld, it may have ramifications affecting various governmental bodies in addition to the Department of Education. The tax issues considered may be analogous to other matters concerning taxation ” and particularly property taxes ” in areas other than those directly pertaining to the School Finance Act.
Recognizing the potential consequences, several counties ” Eagle County among them ” petitioned to file amicus curiae briefs to the Supreme Court, arguing both in support of the defendants’ position but also carving out their own particular areas of interest. As such, they were acting as “friends of the court,” offering the court various arguments and perspectives to take into consideration when rendering its decision.
In this way, the argument goes, justice is more fully rendered, affording relief not only to the parties themselves but also taking into consideration the interests of other potentially affected persons.
An amicus brief is like a little friendly kibitzing, offering a pinch of unsolicited advice to the court for it to ruminate upon before it renders what might be a decision with implications which may reach beyond the actual contestants. And that may be a friendly act indeed.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7:00 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: email@example.com.