Writs are an exception to the typical appeals process. As explained below, a defendant can ask a higher court to issue a writ outside of the appellate process to rectify certain wrongs that occurred at the trial court level.
The word “writ” traces its roots to English common law. In Old English, writ means a letter, often written by an attorney. In olden times, it was a name for an action in the courts. There were different kinds of writs for different actions: writs to recover land or personal property, to enforce judgments, and to seek damages for broken conracts. Most of the common law writs have been abolished and replaced by the civil actions we know today.
In another sense, the word “writ” meant, and still means, an order. For example, an “original writ” in old England was a letter from the king to the local sheriff ordering someone who committed a wrong to either make repairs to the person wronged or appear in court to face formal accusations. In this context, the original writ is most like our “summons,” which orders a party to appear in court.
Today, a writ is an order from a higher court to a lower court or to a governmental official, such as a prison warden. Defendants may seek several types of writs from appellate judges directed at the trial court or at a lower appellate court. (Many states have two levels of appellate courts: an intermediate appellate court and the state Supreme Court.)
Writs are usually considered extraordinary remedies, meaning that they are allowed only when the defendant has no other adequate remedy, such as an appeal. In other words, a defendant may take a writ to contest a point that cannot be appealed. For example, any one of the following scenarios may prohibit an appeal, but justify a writ:
Writs, like appeals, are complex and involve intricate details. If you have been convicted of a crime and think you have a basis to challenge it or otherwise think you might be entitled to a writ, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney.
For more on a related topic, see The Writ of Habeas Corpus.