The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 11 (1998-99)

Appellate Standards of Review: What is Reversible Error?
By Honorable William E. Holdridge

Effective July 1, 1997, Supreme Court Rule 341 required appellants to include a statement of the applicable standard of review for each issue raised in their briefs to the appellate court. I welcomed this change as I believe it reminds appellate advocates that understanding and applying the appropriate standard of review to each appeal is essential to good appellate advocacy. While appellants point out error below and ask the court of review to correct that alleged error, the question before our court often is not whether error occurred (no trial is perfect), but rather does the alleged error require appellate relief. The answer depends inevitably upon the level of scrutiny to which we subject the actions of the trial court, i.e., the standard of review.

This article is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of the nuances of standards of review. Rather it is intended to be a brief overview of our appellate court’s shorthand terminology used in applying the various standards of review. As I note below, the terms are somewhat imprecise and may even tend to overlap. However, as a general proposition, understanding the concepts behind these terms will better prepare the appellate advocate for her or his task of convincing an appellate court to reverse, or affirm, the trial court.

By the term "standard of review" we mean, generally, the degree of deference an appellate court gives to the decision of the trial court. (For an excellent analysis and critique of standards of review currently used by reviewing courts in Illinois, I recommend Professors Timothy P. O’Neill and Susan L. Brody’s article, "Taking Standards of Appellate Review Seriously: A Proposal to Amend Rule 341" 83 Ill. B.J. 512 (1995).

The primary goal of standards of review is, in my view, an attempt to provide a uniform set of basic assumptions concerning how much deference a reviewing court should afford to the decisions of the trial court or administrative agency. As one might assume, that degree of deference ranges from no deference at all (de novo review) to almost total deference (abuse of discretion). For the most part, the degree of deference given to the trial court’s decision, depends on the role the trial court played when it rendered the decision being challenged on appeal, i.e., finder of fact, giver of law, manager of the litigation process, etc.

Abuse of Discretion

The most deferential standard of review used by Illinois courts of review is generally referred to as the "abuse of discretion" standard. The hallmark of this standard of review would appear to be a presumption that a trial court, when given discretion to rule on a particular matter, will rule in a reasonable manner. Only where the trail court is void of reason will its decision be overturned on appeal.

Thus, our courts have described an abuse of discretion in several ways: a ruling which "no reasonable person would take the view adopted by [the court]" O’Connell v. City of Chicago, 285 Ill. App. 3d 459, 463, 647 N.E.2d 105 (1996); a ruling "made without the employment of conscientious judgement" or one which "exceeded the bounds of reason" Kaden v. Pucinski, 263 Ill. App. 3d 611, 615, 635 N.E.2d 468 (1994); a ruling with "no reasonable basis in the evidence" Ford v. Baker, 61 Ill. App. 3d 45, 46, 377 N.E.2d 853 (1978); or a ruling which is "against the manifest weight of the evidence" (Continental Cablevision of Cook County, Inc. v. Miller, 238 Ill. App. 3d 774, 606 N.E.2d 587 (1992)) whose "opposite result is clearly evident from a review of the evidence" In re J.P., 261 Ill. App. 3d 165, 174, 633 N.E.2d 27 (1994).

Most instances where this standard of review applies concern decisions made by the trial court in the exercise of its authority over the procedural aspects and general progress of litigation. For example the decision whether to allow a plaintiff to amend the complaint will not be overturned absent a manifest abuse of discretion. Loyola Academy v. S & S Roof Maintenance, Inc., 146 Ill. 2d 263, 586 N.E.2d 1211, 1216 (1992). Other matters of this nature subject to the abuse of discretion standard of review include the decision to grant or deny a motion for sanctions (In re Estate of Wernick, 127 Ill. 2d 61, 77-78, 535 N.E.2d 876 (1989)); rulings on discovery matters (Maxwell v. Hobart Corp., 216 Ill. App. 3d 108, 576 N.E.2d 268 (1991)); the decision to grant or deny a motion for continuance (Bethany Reformed Church of Lynwood v. Hager, 68 Ill. App. 3d 509, 511, 386 N.E.2d 514, 25 Ill. Dec. 243 (1979); the decision to answer or refrain from answering a question from the jury (People v. Reid, 136 Ill. 2d 27, 38-39, 554 N.E.2d 174 (1990)); a ruling on the amount of attorney fees to be awarded (In re Estate of Callahan,144 Ill. 2d 32, 43-44, 578 N.E.2d 985, 990 (1991); the decision as to whether a party is barred from rejecting an arbitration award (Moon v. Jones, 282 Ill. App. 3d 335, 336, 668 N.E.2d 67 (1996); the trial court’s decision granting or denying a motion for a new trial (Usselmann v. Jansen, 257 Ill. App. 3d 987, 982, 629 N.E.2d 193 (1994)); and the trial court’s decision to dismiss a post conviction petition (People v. Dean, 226 Ill. App. 3d 465, 467, 589 N.E. 2d 888 (1992)).

Evidentiary rulings are also, generally, subject to the abuse of discretion standard of review (People v. Hope, 168 Ill. 2d 1, 23, 658 N.E.2d 391 (1995)) as is the scope of direct and cross-examination People v. Lewis, 165 Ill. 2d 305, 341, 651 N.E. 2d 72 (1995). However, the determination as to whether a particular statement is hearsay is a question of law subject to de novo review. People v. Aguilar, 265 Ill. App. 3d 105, 109, 637 N.E.2d 1221 (1994).

A trial court’s decision on certain substantive matters, particularly those involving the application of statutory provisions to the facts, are also subject to the abuse of discretion standard of review. These include such issues as the trial court’s division of marital property in accordance with the statutory scheme provided in the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (In re Marriage of DeRossett, 173 Ill. 2d 416, 420, 671 N.E.2d 654 (1996)); or awards or modifications of rehabilitative or permanent maintenance (In re Marriage of Harlow, 251 Ill. App. 3d 152, 159, 621 N.E.2d 929 (1993).

Appeals arguing that a trial court’s sentencing decision was excessive (People v. McCain, 248 Ill. App. 3d 844, 859, 617 N.E.2d 1294 (1993)) and those questioning the conditions of probation imposed by a trial court (People v. Ferrell, 277 Ill. App. 3d 74, 659 N.E.2d 992 (1995)) are also subject to the abuse of discretion standard of review.

Manifest Weight of the Evidence

While the abuse of discretion standard of review focuses upon the overall "reasonableness" of the trial court’s decision, the manifest weight of the evidence standard focuses primarily upon the factual record of the proceedings below. Both standards are deferential to the trial court, and trying to determine which is more deferential may amount to splitting hairs. However, the manifest weight of the evidence standard requires the appellate court to look into the record for some evidence to support the trial court’s decision. In that sense, it may be slightly less deferential to the trial court than the abuse of discretion standard.

Typically, the manifest weight of the evidence standard of review is used where the trial court below has made a factual determination in reaching its decision. It is well-settled that the trial court is in a far superior position to determine and weigh the credibility of witnesses, to observe their demeanor, and to resolve conflicts in testimony. People v. Carter, 288 Ill. App. 3d 658, 662, 683 N.E.2d 1215 (1997).

A decision is said to be against the manifest weight of the evidence only "where upon review of all the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, an opposite conclusion is clearly apparent or the fact finder’s findings are palpably erroneous and wholly unwarranted, is clearly the result of passion or prejudice, or appears to be arbitrary and unsubstantiated by the evidence" Joel R. v. Board of Education of Mannheim School District, 292 Ill. App. 3d 607, 613, 686 N.E.2d 659 (1997); or where "an opposite conclusion is clearly evident from the record" Wilmette Partners v. Hamel, 230 Ill. App. 3d 248, 255, 594 N.E.2d 1177 (1992).

Under this standard of review, the appellate court will not reverse a judgment merely because different conclusions could have been drawn or because the appellant, or even the appellate court, might disagree with the trial court’s ruling, so long as there is some evidence in the record to support the trial court’s ruling. Examples of rulings subject to the manifest weight of the evidence standard of review include a trial court’s determination that a parent has neglected his or her child (In re D.M., 258 Ill. App. 3d 669, 672, 631 N.E.2d 341 (1994)); a trial court’s best interest of the child determination (In re I.D., 205 Ill. App. 3d 543, 563 N.E.2d 1200 (1990)); a trial court’s ruling on a motion to suppress evidence where facts are in dispute (People v. Rucker, 294 Ill. App. 3d 218, 689 N.E.2d 1203 (1998); a trial court’s determination that a confession was voluntary (People v. Scott, 148 Ill.2d 479, 594 N.E.2d 217 (1992); a trial court’s ruling, following a bench trial (Bruss v. Klein, 210 Ill. App. 3d 72, 78, 568 N.E.2d 904, 908 (1991)); and a jury’s award of damages (Willmette Partners v. Hamel).

The most common use of the manifest weight of the evidence standard of review is in appeals from the decisions of administrative agencies. Findings and conclusions of administrative agencies on questions of fact are presumed to be true and a reviewing court’s function is limited to determining whether the agency’s decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence. Wyndemere Retirement Community v. Department of Revenue, 274 Ill. App. 3d 455, 459, 654 N.E.2d 608 (1995).

Similar to the manifest weight of the evidence standard is the standard of review concerning the sufficiency of the evidence in criminal convictions. The relevant inquiry is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. People v. Collins, 106 Ill. 2d 237, 261, 478 N.E.2d 267 (1985). This standard applies to all criminal convictions, regardless of whether the nature of the evidence presented is circumstantial or direct. People v. Pintos, 133 Ill. 2d 286, 291, 549 N.E.2d 344, 346 (1989). Moreover, when the determination of a defendant’s guilt or innocence depends upon the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony, the reviewing court must defer to the fact finder and cannot substitute its judgment for that of the trier of fact. People v. Robinson, 213 Ill. App. 3d 1021, 1025, 572 N.E.2d 1254, 1257 (1991).

De Novo Review

Questions of law are reviewed de novo, i.e. without any deference to the trial court’s decision. De novo review generally occurs only where there are no factual disputes and the issue on appeal is one of interpretation of law or the application of the law to a set of undisputed facts. Thus, although generally a trial court’s ruling on a motion to suppress evidence will not be disturbed on appeal unless it is manifestly erroneous, where neither the facts nor the credibility of witnesses are in dispute, the question becomes one of law subject to de novo consideration on review. People v. Wehde, 210 Ill. App. 3d 56, 568 N.E.2d 910 (1991). Likewise, the interpretation of a statute is a question of law and an administrative agency’s finding on a question of law or an interpretation of a statute, including a statute it is charged with administering, is reviewed de novo. Du Page County Board of Review v. Property Tax Appeal Board, 284 Ill. App. 3d 649, 653, 672 N.E.2d 1309 (1996).

Likewise, appellate courts review of an order granting summary judgment de novo. Crum & Forster Managers Corp. v. Resolution Trust Corp., 156 Ill. 2d 384, 390, 620 N.E.2d 1073 (1993). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court must consider the pleadings, depositions, and affidavits strictly against the movant and in favor of the opposing party. Kolakowski v. Voris, 83 Ill. 2d 388, 398, 415 N.E.2d 397 (1980). Summary judgment "is a drastic means of disposing of litigation," and therefore it will only be upheld on review when the movant’s right to the relief "is clear and free from doubt." Purtill v. Hess, 111 Ill. 2d 229, 240, 95 Ill. Dec. 305, 489 N.E.2d 867 (1986). Thus, it can be said that some weighing of the facts must be done by the reviewing court in order to rule on the propriety of the trial court’s granting of a summary judgment motion.

Mixed Questions of Law and Fact

The most interesting recent development in the area of standards of review is in the area of mixed questions of law and fact. These cases call upon the reviewing court to determine whether the trial court’s interpretations of the law and the facts are correct. In other words, the case involves an examination of the legal effect of a given set of facts upon the ultimate outcome of the case. For example, whether a confession was voluntary should ultimately be a question of law, however in order to answer the legal question certain factual determinations will have to be made. I believe that an appropriate standard of review in this situation would be to give appropriate deference to the trial court’s factual determinations but to reserve for the reviewing court the ability to independently evaluate the legal effect of those factual determinations.

Recently, our supreme court held in City of Belvidere v. Illinois State Labor Relations Board, 181 Ill. 2d 191, 692 N.E. 2d 295 (1998), that given the nature of these types of decisions the applicable standard of review should be between a manifest weight of the evidence standard and a de novo standard. I anticipate that the development and application of the standard of review for these mixed question cases will continue and will be the source of some interesting and challenging new legal analysis.

In People v. Coleman, Ill.2d , (No. 81441, decided October 1, 1998), our supreme court established a new standard of review for post-conviction petitions where the petitions were dismissed by the trial court without an evidentiary hearing. The Court noted that neither the manifest weight of the evidence standard, nor the abuse of discretion standard were appropriate where no evidence had been taken by the trial court. As the Court pointed out, where the trial court merely reviews an existing record in order to rule on what amounts to the legal sufficiency of the petition "an appellate court should be free to substitute its own judgment for that of the circuit court in order to formulate the legally correct answer."


All professions, for purposes of consistency, have yardsticks or measuring devices. Standards of review are those measuring devices which judges and advocates use to help determine whether error has occurred and most importantly whether that error requires correction.

Honorable William E. Holdridge is the Presiding Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, Third District. He received his Undergraduate Degree in 1970 and his Masters Degree in Communication in 1971 from Illinois State University. He received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology in 1973 from the University of Illinois and his Law Degree in 1980 from Southern Illinois University.

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