Veteranclaims’s Blog

March 28, 2009

A Glossary of Legal Terms

Filed under: Uncategorized — veteranclaims @ 7:55 pm

The Oyez Project

Glossary of Legal Terms

a fortiori With greater force or reason.

abstention A doctrine or policy of the federal courts to refrain from deciding a case so that the issues involved may first be definitively resolved by state courts.

acquittal A decision by a court that a person charged with a crime is not guilty.

ad hoc Formed for a particular purpose (the board created an ad hoc committee to discuss funding for the new arena).

adjudicate To rule upon judicially.

advisory opinion An opinion issued by a court indicating how it would rule on a question of law should such a question come before it in an actual case. Federal courts do not hand down advisory opinions, but some state courts do.

affidavit A written statement of facts voluntarily made under oath or affirmation.

affirm To uphold a decision of a lower court.

aggravating circumstances Conditions that increase the seriousness of a crime but are not a part of its legal definition.

amicus curiae “Friend of the court.” A person (or group), not a party to a case, who submits views (usually in the form of written briefs) on how the case should be decided.

ante Prior to.

appeal The procedure by which a case is taken to a superior court for a review of the lower court’s decision.

appellant The party dissatisfied with a lower court ruling who appeals the case to a superior court for review.

appellate jurisdiction The legal authority of a superior court to review and render judgment on a decision by a lower court.

appellee The party usually satisfied with a lower court ruling against whom an appeal is taken.

arbitrary Unreasonable; capricious; not done in accordance with established principles.

arguendo In the course of argument.

arraignment A formal stage of the criminal process in which the defendants are brought before a judge, confronted with the charges against them, and they enter a plea to those charges.

arrest Physically taking into custody or otherwise depriving freedom of a person suspected of violating the law.

attainder, bill of A legislative act declaring a person or easily identified group of people guilty of a crime and imposing punishments without the benefit of a trial. Such legislative acts are prohibited by the United States Constitution.

attest To swear to; to be a witness.

bail A security deposit, usually in the form of cash or bond, which allows those accused of crimes to be released from jail and guarantees their appearance at trial.

balancing test A process of judicial decision making in which the court weighs the relative merits of the rights of the individual against the interests of the government.

bench trial A trial, without a jury, conducted before a judge.

bicameral A legislature, such as the U.S. Congress, with two houses.

bill of attainder See attainder, bill of.
Black Codes

1. Antebellum state laws enacted to regulate the institution of slavery

2. Laws enacted shortly after the Civil War in the former Confederate states to restrict the liberties of the newly freed slaves as a way to ensure a supply of inexpensive agricultural labor and to maintain white supremacy.

bona fide Good faith.

Brandeis brief A legal argument that stresses economic and sociological evidence along with traditional legal authorities. Named after Louis Brandeis, who pioneered its use.

brief A written argument of law and fact submitted to the court by an attorney representing a party having an interest in a lawsuit.
case A legal dispute or controversy brought to a court for resolution.

case law Law that has evolved from past court decisions, as opposed to law created by legislative acts.

case or controversy rule The constitutional requirement that courts may only hear real disputes brought by adverse parties.

case-in-chief The primary evidence offered by a party in a court case.

casus faederis In international law, the case of a treaty. The particular event contemplated by the treaty or stipulated for, or which comes within its terms.

certification A procedure whereby a lower court requests that a superior court rule on specified legal questions so that the lower court may correctly apply the law.

certiorari, writ of An order of an appellate court to an inferior court to send up the records of a case that the appellate court has elected to review. The primary method by which the U.S. Supreme Court exercises its discretionary jurisdiction to accept appeals for a full hearing.

civil law Law that deals with the private rights of individuals (e.g., property, contracts, negligence), as contrasted with criminal law.

class action A lawsuit brought by one or more persons who represent themselves and all others similarly situated.

collateral estoppel A rule of law that prohibits an already settled issue from being relitigated in another form.

color of law The appearance or semblance, without the substance, of legal right. The term usually implies a misuse of power made possible because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of the state. State action is synonymous with color of law in the context of federal civil rights statutes or criminal law

comity The principle by which the courts of one jurisdiction give respect and deference to the laws and legal decisions of another jurisdiction.

common law Law that has evolved from usage and custom as reflected in the decisions of courts.

compensatory damages A monetary award, equivalent to the loss sustained, to be paid to the injured party by the party at fault.

concurrent powers Authority that may be exercised by both the state and federal governments.

concurring opinion An opinion that agrees with the result reached by the majority, but disagrees as to the appropriate rationale for reaching that result.

confrontation The right of a criminal defendant to see the testimony of prosecution witnesses and subject such witnesses to cross examination.

consent decree A court-ratified agreement voluntarily reached by parties to settle a lawsuit.

constitutional court A court created under authority of Article III of the Constitution. Judges serve for terms of good behavior and are protected against having their salaries reduced by the legislature.

contempt A purposeful failure to carry out an order of a court (civil contempt) or a willful display of disrespect for the court (criminal contempt).

contraband Articles that are illegal to possess.

courts of appeals (federal) The intermediate level appellate courts in the federal system having jurisdiction over a particular region known as a circuit.

criminal law Law governing the relationship between individuals and society. Deals with the enforcement of laws and the punishment of those who, by breaking laws, commit crimes.

curtilage The land and outbuildings immediately adjacent to a home and regularly used by its occupants.

de facto In fact, actual.

de jure As a result of law or official government action.

de minimis Small or unimportant. A de minimis issue is considered one too trivial for a court to consider.

de novo New, from the beginning.

declaratory judgment A court ruling determining a legal right or interpretation of the law, but not imposing any relief or remedy.

defendant A party at the trial level being sued in a civil case or charged with a crime in a criminal case.

demurrer A motion to dismiss a lawsuit in which the defendant admits to the facts alleged by the plaintiff but contends that those facts are insufficient to justify a legal cause of action.
deposition Sworn testimony taken out of court.

dicta Those portions of a judge’s opinion that are not essential to deciding the case.

directed verdict An action by a judge ordering a jury to return a specified verdict.

discovery A pretrial procedure whereby one party to a lawsuit gains access to information or evidence held by the opposing party.

dissenting opinion A formal written expression by a judge who disagrees with the result reached by the majority.

distinguish A court’s explanation of why a particular precedent is inapplicable to the case under consideration.

district courts The trial courts of general jurisdiction in the federal system.

diversity jurisdiction The authority of federal courts to hear cases in which a party from one state is suing a party from another state.

docket The schedule of cases to be heard by a court.
double jeopardy The trying of a defendant a second time for the same offense. Prohibited by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

due process Government procedures that follow principles of essential fairness.

eminent domain The authority of the government to take private property for public purpose.

en banc An appellate court hearing with all the judges of the court participating.

enjoin An order from a court requiring a party to do or refrain from doing certain acts.

entrapment Law enforcement officials inducing an otherwise innocent person into the commision of a criminal act.

equity Law based on principles of fairness rather than strictly applied statutes.

error, writ of An order issued by an appeals court commanding a lower court to send up the full record of a case for review.

ex parte A hearing in which only one party to a dispute is present.

ex post facto law A criminal law passed by the legislature and made applicable to acts committed prior to passage of the law. Prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

ex rel Upon information from. Used to designate a court case instituted by the government but instigated by a private party.

ex vi termini From the force or very meaning of the term or expression.

exclusionary rule A principle of law that illegally gathered evidence may not be admitted in court.

exclusive powers Powers reserved for either the federal government or the state governments, but not exercised by both.
federal question A legal issue based on the U.S. Constitution, laws, or treaties.

felony A serious criminal offense, usually punishable by incarceration of one year or more.

gerrymander To construct political boundaries for the purpose of giving advantage to a particular political party or interest.

grand jury A panel of twelve to twenty-three citizens who review prosecutorial evidence to determine if there are sufficient grounds to issue an indictment binding an individual over for trial on criminal charges.

guilty A determination that a person accused of a criminal offense is legally responsible as charged.

habeas corpus “You have the body.” A writ issued to determine if a person held in custody is being unlawfully detained or imprisoned.

harmless error An error occurring in a court proceeding that is insufficient in magnitude to justify the overturning of the court’s final determination.

hearsay Testimony not based on the personal knowledge of the witness, but a repetition of what the witness has heard others say.

immunity An exemption from prosecution granted in exchange for testimony.

in camera A legal hearing held in the judge’s chambers or otherwise in private.

in forma pauperis “In the form of a pauper.” A special status granted to indigents that allows them to proceed without payment of court fees and to be exempt from certain procedural requirements.

in pari materia On the same subject.

in re “In the matter of.” The designation used in a judicial proceeding in which there are no formal adversaries.

in rem An act directed against a thing and not against a person.

incorporation The process whereby provisions of the Bill of Rights are declared to be included in the due process guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment and made applicable to state and local governments.

indictment A document issued by a grand jury officially charging an individual with criminal violations and binding the accused over for trial.

information A document, serving the same purpose as an indictment, but issued directly by the prosecutor.

infra Below.

injunction A writ prohibiting the person to whom it is directed from committing certain specified acts.

inter alia Among other things.

interlocutory decree A provisional action that temporarily settles a legal question pending the final determination of a dispute.

ipse dixit A statement that depends for its persuasiveness on the authority of the one who said it.

ipso facto (Latin “by the fact itself”) By the very nature of the situation.

judgment of the court The final ruling of a court, independent of the legal reasoning supporting it.

judicial activism A philosophy that courts should not be reluctant to review and if necessary strike down legislative and executive actions.

judicial notice The recognition by a court of the truth of certain facts without requiring one of the parties to put them into evidence.

judicial restraint A philosophy that courts should defer to the legislative and executive branches whenever possible.

judicial review The authority of a court to determine the constitutionality of acts committed by the legislative and executive branches and to strike down acts judged to be in violation of the Constitution.

jurisdiction The authority of a court to hear and decide legal disputes and to enforce its rulings.

justiciable Capable of being heard and decided by a court.

legislative court A court created by Congress under authority of Article I of the Constitution to assist in carrying out the powers of the legislature.

litigant A party to a lawsuit.

magistrate A low level judge with limited authority.

mandamus “We command.” A writ issued by a court commanding a public official to carry out a particular act or duty.

mandamus, writ of (Latin “we command”) A writ issued by a superior court to compel a lower court or a government officer to perform mandatory or purely ministerial duties correctly.
mandatory jurisdiction A case that a court is required to hear.

marque and reprisal An order from the government of one country requesting and legitimizing the seizure of persons and property of another country. Prohibited by the Constitution.

merits The central issues of a case.

misdemeanor A less serious criminal act, usually punishable by less than one year of incarceration.

mistrial A trial that is prematurely ended by a judge because of procedural irregularities.

mitigating circumstances Conditions that lower the moral blame of a criminal act, but do not justify or excuse it.

moot Unsettled or undecided. A question presented in a lawsuit that cannot be answered by a court either because the issue has resolved itself or conditions have so changed that the court is unable to grant the requested relief.

motion A request made to a court for a certain ruling or action.

natural law Laws considered applicable to all persons in all nations because they are thought to be basic to human nature.

nolle prosequi The decision of a prosecutor to drop criminal charges against an accused.

nolo contendere No contest. A plea entered by a criminal defendant in which the accused does not admit guilt but submits to sentencing and punishment as if guilty.

obiter dicta (see dicta) (Latin “something said on passing”) A judicial comment made during the course of delivering a judicial opinion, but one that is unnecessary to the decision in the case and therefore not precedential.

opinion of the court An opinion announcing the judgment and reasoning of a court endorsed by a majority of the judges participating.

order A written command issued by a judge.

original jurisdiction The authority of a court to try a case and to decide it, as opposed to appellate jurisdiction.

per curiam An unsigned or collectively written opinion issued by a court.

per se In and of itself.

peremptory challenge Excusing a prospective juror without explaining the reasons for doing so.

petit jury A trial court jury to decide criminal or civil cases.

petitioner A party seeking relief in court.

plaintiff The party who brings a legal action to court for resolution or remedy.

plea bargain An arrangement in a criminal case in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty in return for the prosecutor reducing the criminal charges or recommending a lenient sentence.

plenary Full; complete; to be attended by all members or participants.

plurality opinion An opinion announcing the judgment of a court with supporting reasoning that is not endorsed by a majority of the justices participating.

police powers The power of the state to regulate for the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of its citizens.

political question An issue more appropriate for determination by the legislative or executive branch than the judiciary.

precedent A previously decided case that serves as a guide for deciding a current case.

preemption A doctrine under which an area of authority previously left to the states is, by act of Congress, brought into the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.

prima facie “At first sight.” A case that is sufficient to prevail unless effectively countered by the opposing side.

pro bono publico “For the public good.” Usually refers to legal representation done without fee for some charitable or public purpose.

pro se A person who appears in court without an attorney.

punitive damages A monetary award (separate from compensatory damages) imposed by a court for punishment purposes to be paid by the party at fault to the injured party.

quash To annul, vacate, or totally do away with.

ratio decidendi A court’s primary reasoning for deciding a case the way it did.

recuse The action of a judge not to participate in a case because of conflict of interest or other disqualifying condition.

remand To send a case back to an inferior court for additional action.

res judicata A legal issue that has been finally settled by a court judgment.

respondent The party against whom a legal action is filed.

reverse An action by an appellate court setting aside or changing a decision of a lower court.

ripeness A condition in which a legal dispute has evolved to the point where the issues it presents can be effectively resolved by a court.

selective incorporation The policy of the Supreme Court to decide incorporation issues on a case-by-case, right-by-right basis.

seriatim One after another; in a series; successively.

show cause A judicial order commanding a party to appear in court and explain why the court should not take a proposed action.

solicitor general Justice Department official whose office represents the federal government in all litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court.

standing; standing to sue The right of parties to bring legal actions because they are directly affected by the legal issues raised.

stare decisis “Let the decision stand.” The doctrine that once a legal issue has been settled it should be followed as precedent in future cases presenting the same question.

state action An action taken by an agency or official of a state or local government.

statute A law passed by a legislative body.

stay To stop or suspend.

strict construction Narrow interpretation of the provisions of laws.

sub silentio “Under silence.” A court action taken without explicit notice or indication.

subpoena (Latin “under penalty”) A writ commanding a person to appear before a court or other tribunal, subject to a penalty for failing to comply.

subpoena ad testificandum An order compelling a person to testify before a court, legislative hearing, or grand jury.

subpoena duces tecum An order compelling a person to produce a document or other piece of physical evidence that is relevant to issues pending before a court, legislative hearing, or grand jury.

summary judgment A decision by a court made without a full hearing or without receiving briefs or oral arguments.

supra Above.

temporary restraining order A judicial order prohibiting certain challenged actions from being taken prior to a full hearing on the question.

test A criterion or set of criteria used by courts to determine if certain legal thresholds have been met or constitutional provisions violated.

three-judge court A special federal court made up of appellate and trial court judges created to expedite the processing of certain issues made eligible for such priority treatment by congressional statute.

tort A civil wrong for which a remedy may be obtained, usually in the form of damages; as breach of a duty that the law imposes on everyone in the same relation to one another as those involved in a given transaction.

tortfeasor A party who has committed a tort.

trespass An unlawful act committed against the person or property of another.

ultra vires Actions taken that exceed the legal authority of the person or agency performing them.

usus loquendi The common usage of ordinary language.

vacate To void or rescind.

vel non “Or not.”

venireman A juror.

venue The geographical jurisdiction in which a case is heard.

voir dire “To speak the truth.” The stage of a trial in which potential jurors are questioned to determine their competence to sit in judgment of a case.

warrant A judicial order authorizing an arrest or search and seizure.

writ A written order of a court commanding the recipient to perform or not to perform certain specified acts.
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