What Are “Standards of Review?”
These words from now retired Justice William C. Koch, Jr.’s concurring opinion in City of Memphis v. Hargett, 414 S.W. 3d 88, 111-13 (Tenn. 2012) (footnotes omitted) explain what standards of review are and why they are important.
The standards of review are “the metaphorical hinges on the door to the realm of appellate review.” Even though they are treated by many lawyers and judges as routine matters, the choice of the correct standard of review can be “influential, if not dispositive.” Schwimmer v. Sony Corp. of Am., 459 U.S. 1007, 1009, 103 S.Ct. 362, 74 L.Ed.2d 398 (1982) (White, J., dissenting from the denial of certiorari). Because of their importance, the choice of the applicable standard of review should be the starting point for the resolution of the issues on appeal.
Standards of review have been an integral part of American jurisprudence since the earliest days of our country. They are embodied in constitutions, statutes, court rules, and judicial decisions. These standards serve the important function of limiting appellate courts to their proper role when passing on the conduct of other decision-makers. Evans v. Eaton Corp. Long Term Disability Plan, 514 F.3d 315, 320 (4th Cir.2008); Timothy J. Storm, The Standard of Review Does Matter: Evidence of Judicial Self–Restraint in the Illinois Appellate Court, 34 S. Ill. U. L.J. 73, 78 (2009). They do so by “defin[ing] the level of examination the court may apply, including the degree of deference it will accord to the [lower] court’s findings of fact and conclusions of law.” Hodge v. Craig, 382 S.W.3d 325, 333 n. 2 (Tenn.2012) (quoting 19 James Wm. Moore et al., Moore’s Federal Practice ¶ 206.01 (3d ed.2009)).
The question of the application of the proper standard of review is a question of law. Warehime v. Warehime, 580 Pa. 201, 860 A.2d 41, 46 n. 5 (2004). Accordingly, the reviewing court must ultimately decide what standard of review will be used. Worth v. Tyer, 276 F.3d 249, 262 n. 4 (7th Cir.2001); K & T Enters., Inc. v. Zurich Ins. Co., 97 F.3d 171, 175 (6th Cir.1996); *113 Citizens Awareness Network v. Montana Bd. of Envtl. Review, 2010 MT 10, ¶ 14, 355 Mont. 60, 227 P.3d 583, 588.
Parties cannot choose or control the standard or standards of review applicable to their case. United States v. Vontsteen, 950 F.2d 1086, 1091 (5th Cir.1992); Town of Chandler v. Indiana–American Water Co., 892 N.E.2d 1264, 1268 (Ind.Ct.App.2008). Nor can they stipulate or create the applicable standard of review. Barnett v. Hicks, 119 Wash.2d 151, 829 P.2d 1087, 1093 (1992). In addition, a party cannot waive the application of the correct standard of review by failing to argue it. Brown v. Smith, 551 F.3d 424, 428 n. 2 (6th Cir.2008); see also Worth v. Tyer, 276 F.3d at 262 n. 4; Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corp., 120 F.3d 1006, 1022 n. 4 (9th Cir.1997) (en banc) (O’ Scannlain, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); Izzarelli v. Rexene Prods. Co., 24 F.3d 1506, 1519 n. 24 (5th Cir.1994); Borough of Jenkintown v. Board of Comm’rs of Abington Twp., 858 A.2d 136, 138 (Pa.Commw.Ct.2004). Appellate courts have the authority to identify and apply the correct legal standard whether argued by the parties or not. Kamen v. Kemper Fin. Servs., Inc., 500 U.S. 90, 99, 111 S.Ct. 1711, 114 L.Ed.2d 152 (1991); Thompson v. Runnels, 705 F.3d 1089, 1098 (9th Cir.2013).
Although Tenn. R.App. P. 27(a)(7)(B) envisions that the parties will identify for the appellate court the standard or standards of review they propose to apply to the issues being presented, a party’s failure to propose a standard of review or to propose the correct standard of review does not prevent the appellate court from applying the correct standard of review. Accordingly, it is the appellate court’s “duty … to plainly identify the appropriate standard of review and then to clearly employ that standard when reviewing the prior decision.” Stevens v. Employer–Teamsters Joint Council No. 84 Pension Fund, 979 F.2d 444, 458 (6th Cir.1992).