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Published: 2008-03-26

What is a Motion?

When involved in a lawsuit, parties and their attorneys often file motions, as in a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgement. What is a motion? What does it do?

Whenever a party wants the court to do something, he or she needs to make a written request to the court, which is what a motion is.

The court rarely acts on its own -- it normally rules on a motion that is presented to it. If a party wants a certain remedy or relief from the court, he of she needs to get it before the court by way of a motion.

The Hawaii Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of the Circuit Courts of the State of Hawaii have certain requirements for motions -- the moving of papers, a citation to a rule or statute that authorizes the motion, a memorandum in support of the motion, the attachment of all necessary affidavits and exhibits, a specific request for relief, and other requirements.

A motion can be either a non-hearing motion or a hearing motion. Certain motions are designated non-hearing, which means that the court will rule on it based on only the written memoranda and supporting affidavits and exhibits. Other motions require a hearing where, in addition to submitting written memoranda and evidence, the attorneys are required to appear before the court and argue orally in favor of or against that motion.

After oral arguments, the court then makes a ruling. The court's ruling is usually oral, and one of the attorneys will then prepare a written order that documents the court's ruling. The state courts rarely issue a written order with a detailed explanation of its ruling on a motion. The federal court, however, often issues a detailed written order when ruling on a motion for summary judgment, if the issues are complex or important enough.

There are many kinds of motions, but the most prevalent one is a motion for summary judgment. In this motion, a party is asking the court to make a final ruling on the merits of a particular cause of action so that that cause of action need not go to trial for determination. For a motion for summary judgment to be granted, there can be no genuine issue of material fact. If there is even one such issue, the court must deny the motion and send the issue to trial.

An example: In an auto accident case, whether the light was red or green is usually a genuine issue of material fact. If one witness says it was red and another says it was green, a motion for summary judgment must be denied because a jury, not the court, needs to decide, based on the evidence presented, whether the light was red or green.

However, if the material facts are undisputed, but the law is in dispute, the court can rule on a motion for summary judgment because courts are empowered to interpret questions of pure law.

A court cannot determine questions of fact -- only a jury can -- but it must rule on questions of law.

Therefore, if a case involves only legal issues, and the facts are undisputed, the court can rule on a motion for summary judgment, and a trial becomes unnecessary. If a motion for summary judgment is granted, that particular cause of action is resolved, and no trial on that issue needs to be held.

An entire case can be decided on a motion for summary judgment is the motion encompasses all of the issues presented in that case.

Motions are helpful in obtaining information or in trimming cases down to their basic parts. They can be quite simple, like a request to extend a deadline, or quite technical, on an arcane point of law. In either case, they are useful tools in the litigation process.