Legal Glossary

Small Glossary of Legal Terms

Acquittal: When a person charged with an offense is set free by a jury or judges verdict. This term applies to criminal type matters. When a person is charged with a crime and decides to have a trial, the fact finder (which can be either a judge or jury) makes a decision as to whether that person is guilty or not guilty. If the fact finder determines that the person is not guilty, that person is said to have been acquitted of that charge.

Affidavit: A written statement of facts confirmed by the oath of the party making it, before a notary or officer having authority to administer oaths.

Affirmed: In the practice of the appellate courts, the decree or order is declared valid and will stand as rendered in the lower court.

Answer: The formal written statement by a defendant responding to a civil complaint and setting forth the grounds for defense.

Appeal: A request made after a trial, asking another court (usually the court of appeals) to decide whether the trial was conducted properly. To make such a request is "to appeal" or "to take an appeal." one who appeals is called the appellant.

Appellate: About appeals; an appellate court has the power to review the judgment of another lower court or tribunal.

Arraignment: Proceeding where a person is called before a court to be formally informed of criminal charges which have been lodged against him and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Arrest: When a person is detained in such a manner that he or she is not free to leave. A person can be is constructively under arrest even if he or she is not physically restricted (handcuffs) or not taken to a jail facility as long as the person is not free to leave.

Assignment Judge: See chief judge.

Attorney General: The title given to the chief representative of the government in criminal and civil matters. That is to say that the attorney general is responsible for upholding the law and either bringing criminal charges or suing civilly when a law has been broken. The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer within the designated unit of government. There is an attorney general of the united states in charge of the enforcement of federal laws and each state has it’s own attorney general in charge of enforcement of state laws. Attorneys who work for the attorney general are usually titled assistant attorneys general or deputy attorneys general.(See also prosecutors and U.S. Attorney)

Bail: A financial or property security that is posted with the court in exchange for the release of a prisoner. The security acts as a guarantee that a person charged with a crime will appear at all court ordered events.

Bailiff: A court officer responsible for maintaining order within the courtroom and assisting the judge with courtroom functions.

Bankruptcy: Refers to statutes and judicial proceedings involving persons or businesses that cannot pay their debts and seek the assistance of the court in getting a fresh start. under the protection of the bankruptcy court, debtors may discharge their debts, perhaps by paying a portion of each debt. Bankruptcy judges preside over these proceedings.

Bench Trial: Trial without a jury in which a judge decides the facts.

Bench Warrant: An order issued from a judge that compels the arrest and appearance of an individual before that judge. This order is usually issued when a person fails to appear for a court proceeding when compelled to do so.

Brief: A written statement submitted by the lawyer for each side in a case that explains to the judges why they should decide the case or a particular part of a case in favor of that lawyer's client.

Burden of Proof: The responsibility for proving something at issue. In a criminal case the state has the burden of proving every element of its case while the defendant has absolutely no burden to prove anything. The burden of proof also deals with the standard by which a person will be required to prove that something is or is not true. In a criminal matter the standard is that the matter must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In a civil matter the standard is a simple preponderance (or that it is more likely than not).

Capital Offense: A crime punishable by death.

Case Law: The law as laid down in cases that have been decided in the decisions of the courts.

Chambers: A judge's office.

Charge to the Jury: The judge's instructions to the jury concerning the law that applies to the facts of the case on trial.

Chief Judge: The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of a court but also decides cases; chief judges are determined by seniority. in some jurisdictions, the chief judge is called the assignment judge.

Clerk of Court: An officer appointed by the court to work with the chief judge in overseeing the court's administration, especially to assist in managing the flow of cases through the court and to maintain court records.

Circumstantial Evidence: Evidence that by virtue of it’s existence, provides a basis to believe that something else is either true or false. Circumstantial evidence suggests that something is true or false because of inferences that can be drawn by other factors. Here is an illustration: suppose the issue to be proven is whether it snowed overnight. If one looks out of the window at 7 p.m. and sees no snow on the ground then, looks out again at 10 p.m., sees snow falling to the ground and watches it accumulate, that is direct evidence of how the snow got to be where it is. If, however that same person looks out of the window at 7 p.m. and sees no snow on the ground then wakes at 9 a.m. to find the ground blanketed with snow, that is circumstantial evidence that it snowed overnight

Civil Court: A court that enforces the private rights of citizens. Civil courts exist to resolve personal and property disputes between citizens and to redress injuries and wrongs suffered by citizens. “Citizens” in this context includes corporations and organizations as well. By contrast, criminal courts exist to address the harm that is suffered by the state when one of its citizens is victimized by another.(See criminal courts)

Common Law: The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States. It is based on judicial decisions rather than legislative action.

Complaint: A written statement by the plaintiff stating the wrongs allegedly committed by the defendant.

Consent Search: A search that is conducted after getting the permission of the individual or owner of the property to be searched. The United States Constitution by way of the Fourth Amendment guarantees that individuals are to be free from unreasonable searches. Unreasonable searches are those for which there is no legal probable cause to conduct that search. If, however, a person consents to a search of himself or his property, he has waived any protection from the Fourth Amendment. (See probable cause; search and seizure; fourth amendment)

Contempt: Willful disobedience to or open disrespect of a court, judge or legislative body. Contempt is a crime in most jurisdictions.

Contract: An agreement between two or more persons that creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.

Conviction: A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Coroner: Also called the medical examiner in many jurisdictions, the coroner is responsible for investigating and determining the cause of death in cases where there is cause to believe that death is not due to natural causes.

Counsel: Legal advice; a term used to refer to lawyers in a case.

Counterclaim: A claim that a defendant makes against a plaintiff.

Court: Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "Court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the Court has read the briefs."

Court Reporter: A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court and produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.

Criminal Courts: Courts established to try and punish persons for violations of criminal law. This courts address the harm to society caused when a person violates the criminal law. It is for that reason that a criminal case is always called “State versus Doe” or “People versus Doe”. Civil courts by contrast provide remedy and relief for injuries, wrongs, property and personal disputes between citizens. (See civil courts)

Damages: Money paid by defendants to successful plaintiffs in civil cases to compensate the plaintiffs for their injuries.

Deadly Force: The use of force sufficient to take human life or seriously injure a human being. This term is usually used in conjunction with the amount of force that police officers can use in subduing or arresting a suspect. The law makes clear that there are times when a law enforcement officer may use deadly force.

Default Judgment: A judgment rendered because of the defendant's failure to answer or appear.

Defendant: A person who has been formally charged with a crime or offense or in a civil matter, one who is complained about.

Deposition: An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial.

Discovery: Lawyers' examination, before trial, of facts and documents in possession of the opponents to help the lawyers prepare for trial.

Docket: The calendar of cases that are slated for resolution in either the criminal or civil justice system.

Due Process: The accepted and established process that guarantees that a person receives all the protections and rights granted by the constitution of the united states and the statutes, rules and regulations of the individual states.

En Banc: "In the bench" or "full bench." refers to court sessions with the entire membership of a court participating rather than the usual quorum. U.S. Courts of Appeals usually sit in panels of three judges, but may expand to a larger number in certain cases. They are then said to be sitting en banc.

Evidence: Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case for one side or the other.

Federal Question: Jurisdiction given to federal courts in cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties.

Felony: A term that was used to describe a type of crime more serious than a misdemeanor or a crime carrying a penalty of more that one year in prison.

File: To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court to enter into the files or records of a case.

Grand Jury: A group of citizens chosen to hear evidence of a crime and determine if probable cause exists to return an indictment. If they determine probable cause does not exist or if for any other reason they fail to return an indictment, a case is said to be no billed (no bill of indictment has been returned). Their vote must simply be unanimous and their standard of proof is a preponderance of the evidence. The grand jury is meant to function as one of a series of checks and balances in our criminal justice system. Significant criticism has been raised, however, that prosecutors can sway a grand jury to the direction they would like them to go. One United States Supreme Court justice alluded to the grand jury as “the prosecutor’s playground”.

Habeas Corpus: A writ that is usually used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of his imprisonment. It may also be used to bring a person in custody before the court to give testimony, or to be prosecuted.

Hearsay: Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in court.

Impeachment: (1) The process of calling something into question, as in "impeaching the testimony of a witness." (2) The constitutional process whereby the house of representatives may "impeach" (accuse of misconduct) high officers of the federal government for trial in the Senate.

Indictment: The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies.

In Forma Pauperis: In the manner of a pauper. Permission given to a person to sue without payment of court fees on claim of indigence or poverty.

Information: A formal accusation by a government attorney that the defendant committed a misdemeanor.

Injunction: An order of the court prohibiting (or compelling) the performance of a specific act to prevent irreparable damage or injury.

Instructions: A judge's explanation to the jury before it begins deliberations of the questions it must answer and the law governing the case.

Interrogatories: Written questions asked by one party of an opposing party, who must answer them in writing under oath; a discovery device in a lawsuit.

Issue: (1) The disputed point in a disagreement between parties in a lawsuit. (2) To send out officially, as in to issue an order.

Judge: Government official with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts.

Judgment: The official decision of a court finally determining the respective rights and claims of the parties to a suit.

Jurisdiction: (1) The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case. Concurrent jurisdiction exists when two courts have simultaneous responsibility for the same case. (2) The geographic area over which the court has authority to decide cases.

Jury: Persons selected according to law and sworn to inquire into and declare a verdict on matters of fact.

Jurisprudence: The study of law and the structure of the legal system.

Lawsuit: A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty, resulting in harm to the plaintiff.

Litigation: A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.

Magistrate Judges: Judicial officers who assist U.S. District Court judges in getting cases ready for trial, who may decide some criminal and civil trials when both parties agree to have the case heard by a magistrate judge instead of a judge.

Misdemeanor: Usually a petty offense, a less serious crime than a felony, punishable by less than a year of confinement.

Mistrial: An invalid trial, caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again from the selection of the jury.

Miranda Rights: When a person is arrested, they have certain rights that are guaranteed them by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Our courts have determined that a person needs to be informed of those rights so that law enforcement does not unfairly or unreasonably extract information that might incriminate a person through their own ignorance. They are called Miranda rights because the case that made the reading of these rights mandatory is called Miranda v. Arizona. The Miranda rights are as follows:

You have the right to remain silent (5th Amendment right against self incrimination)

Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law

You have the right to an attorney (6th Amendment right to counsel)

If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you

Nolo Contendere: No contest-has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

Opinion: A judge's written explanation of a decision of the court or of a majority of judges. a dissenting opinion disagrees with the majority opinion because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law on which the decision is based. A concurring opinion agrees with the decision of the court but offers further comment.

Oral Argument: An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges' questions.

Panel: (1) In appellate cases, a group of judges (usually three) assigned to decide the case; (2) In the jury selection process, the group of potential jurors.

Parole: A process that allows prisoners to earn an early release from prison based upon meeting certain criteria such as good behavior, mental stability, and gravity of the original crime. Corrections officials generally support parole because it gives the prisoner an incentive to behave positively while in prison.

Parties: Plaintiffs and defendants (petitioners and respondents) to lawsuits, also known as appellants and appellees in appeals, and their lawyers.

Petit Jury (or Trial Jury): A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons. Federal civil juries consist of six persons.

Plaintiff: The person who files the complaint in a civil lawsuit.

Plea: In a criminal case, the defendant's statement pleading "guilty" or "not guilty" in answer to the charges, a declaration made in open court.

Pleadings: Written statements of the parties in a civil case of their positions. In the federal courts, the principal pleadings are the complaint and the answer.

Precedent: A court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case, unless a party can show that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way.

Procedure: The rules for the conduct of a lawsuit; there are rules of civil, criminal, evidence, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure.

Pretrial Conference: A meeting of the judge and lawyers to discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, to review evidence and witnesses, to set a timetable, and to discuss the settlement of the case.

Probation: A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which the court releases convicted defendants under supervision as long as certain conditions are observed.

Pro Se: A Latin term meaning "on one's own behalf"; in courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.

Prosecute: To charge someone with a crime. a prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government.

Probable Cause: A reasonable articulable ground for believing that a charge is well founded.

Probation: An option within the realm of criminal sentencing which allows a person to be placed under the supervision of the court for a defined period of time. Under the terms of probation, a person is generally permitted to stay out of jail and required to meet certain conditions, i.e. pay fines, seek employment, make restitution or seek counseling/rehabilitation. These conditions are usually met under the supervision of a probation officer who is responsible to insure compliance of the probationer. Probation can also be custodial as well, requiring the person to spend some time in a custodial facility.

Prosecutor: An attorney charged with the enforcement of state and local laws and the prosecution of those persons found to have violated them. Quite often the terms “prosecutor”, “attorney general” and states attorney” are used interchangeably. Also used simply to name one who “prosecutes” a case.

Record: A written account of all the acts and proceedings in a lawsuit.

Remand: When an appellate court sends a case back to a lower court for further proceedings.

Reverse: When an appellate court sets aside the decision of a lower court because of an error. A reversal is often followed by a remand.

Sentence: The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.

Service of Process: The service of writs or summonses to the appropriate party.

Settlement: Parties to a lawsuit resolve their difference without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in satisfaction of the other party's claims.

Sequester: To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.

Sidebar: A conference between the judge and lawyers held out of earshot of the jury and spectators.

Statute: A law passed by a legislature.

Statute of Limitations: A law that sets the time within which parties must take action to enforce their rights.

Subpoena: A command to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Subpoena Duces Tecum: A command to a witness to produce documents.

Summary Judgment: A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when there is no dispute as to the facts of the case, and one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Temporary Restraining Order: Prohibits a person from an action that is likely to cause irreparable harm. This differs from an injunction in that it may be granted immediately, without notice to the opposing party, and without a hearing. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held.

Testimony: Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.

Tort: A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person, as outlined by law. A very common tort is negligent operation of a motor vehicle that results in property damage and personal injury in an automobile accident.

Transcript: A written, word-for-word record of what was said, either in a proceeding such as a trial or during some other conversation, as in a transcript of a hearing or oral deposition.

Uphold: The decision of an appellate court not to reverse a lower court decision.

U.S. Attorney: A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute and defend cases for the federal government.

Venue: The geographical location in which a case is tried.

Verdict: The decision of a petit jury or a judge.

Voir Dire: The process by which judges and lawyers select a petit jury from among those eligible to serve, by questioning them to determine knowledge of the facts of the case and a willingness to decide the case only on the evidence presented in court. "Voir Dire" is a phrase meaning "to speak the truth."

Warrant: A written order directing the arrest of a party. A search warrant orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence.

Witness: A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

Writ: A formal written command, issued from the court, requiring the performance of a specific act.

Writ of Certiorari: An order issued by the supreme court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case for which it will hear on appeal.