What Is De Novo Judicial Review?

De novo judicial review describes a review of a lower court ruling by a federal appellate court. De novo judicial review is used in questions of how the law was applied or interpreted. It is a nondeferential standard of review, so it doesn't place any weight on the previous court’s finding. A de novo judicial review can reverse the trial court’s decision. "De novo" is a Latin expression meaning "anew" or "from the beginning." The process is also referred to as "de novo appeal" or "de novo review."

There are three general standards of judicial review: questions of law, questions of fact, and matters of procedure or discretion. Because de novo judicial review is used in questions of how the law was applied or interpreted, it is in the category of "questions of law."

Key Takeaways

  • De novo judicial review describes a review of a lower court ruling by a federal appellate court.
  • The courts use de novo judicial review when an appeal is based on a question about how the trial court interpreted or applied the law.
  • De novo judicial review is a nondeferential standard of review, so the appellate court examines the issue from the beginning, without deferring to the lower court’s decision.

Understanding De Novo Judicial Review

In employment matters, de novo judicial review may be used to re-examine a trial court’s decision about employee benefits or mandatory arbitration. For example, an appellate court could use de novo review to override a plan administrator’s decision to deny an employee’s benefits in a lawsuit filed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). In this scenario, the courts may decide that by giving explicit discretionary authority to the plan fiduciary, employers could be subject to a more deferential standard of review that is more beneficial to employers.

Types of Judicial Review

There are different standards of review in law, and the standard of review that applies to a case has an important role in determining the outcome of an appeal. The courts use de novo judicial review when an appeal is based on a question about how the trial court interpreted or applied the law. The appellate court examines the issue from the beginning, without deferring to the lower court’s decision.

Other standards of review are more deferential, meaning that they place some weight on the trial court’s decision. The "clearly erroneous" standard of review is what an appellate court uses to determine whether an error of fact, such as dishonest testimony by a key witness, influenced the outcome of the previous trial.

The "arbitrary and capricious" standard of review is extremely deferential. The courts use this type of judicial review when an appellate court determines that a previous ruling is invalid because it was made on unreasonable grounds or without any proper consideration of circumstances.

Understanding how the different standards of review work and which ones apply in a given scenario is important in evaluating the likelihood of winning an appeal. A client might not want to pay their attorney to represent them in an appeal they aren’t expected to win. In reality, de novo trials are fairly uncommon due to the time and judicial resources required to try the facts of a case more than once. However, de novo review of legal matters on appeal is quite common.