Legal Glossary

 

Acquittal – A jury verdict that a criminal defendant is not guilty, or the finding of a judge that the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction.

Active Judge – A judge in the full-time service of the court. Compare to senior judge.

Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) – The federal agency responsible for collecting court statistics, administering the federal courts' budget, and performing many other administrative and programmatic functions, under the direction and supervision of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

Admissible – A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases.

Affidavit – A written or printed statement made under oath.

Alternate Juror – A juror selected in the same manner as a regular juror who hears all the evidence but does not help decide the case unless called on to replace a regular juror.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – A procedure for settling a dispute outside the courtroom. Most forms of ADR are not binding on the parties, and involve referral of the case to a neutral party such as an arbitrator or mediator.

Amicus Curiae – Latin for "friend of the court." It is advice formally offered to the court in a brief filed by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case.

Answer – The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint, articulating the grounds for defense.

Appellant – The party who appeals a district court's decision, usually seeking reversal of that decision.

Appellee – The party who opposes an appellant's appeal, and who seeks to persuade the appeals court to affirm the district court's decision.

Arraignment – A proceeding in which a criminal defendant is brought into court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

Article III Judge – A federal judge who is appointed for life, during "good behavior," under Article III of the Constitution. Article III judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

 

Bail – The release, prior to trial, of a person accused of a crime, under specified conditions designed to assure that person's appearance in court when required. Also can refer to the amount of bond money posted as a financial condition of pretrial release.

Bankruptcy Judge – A judicial officer of the United States district court who is the court official with decision-making power over federal bankruptcy cases.

Bench Trial – A trial without a jury, in which the judge serves as the fact-finder.

Brief – A written statement submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding that explains one side's legal and factual arguments.

Burden of Proof – The duty to prove disputed facts. In civil cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt. (See standard of proof.)

 

Case File – A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.

Case Law – The law as established in previous court decisions. A synonym for legal precedent.
Akin to common law, which springs from tradition and judicial decisions.

Caseload – The number of cases handled by a judge or a court.

Cause of Action – A legal claim.

Chambers – The offices of a judge and his or her staff.

Class Action – A lawsuit in which one or more members of a large group, or class, of individuals or other entities sue on behalf of the entire class. The district court must find that the claims of the class members contain questions of law or fact in common before the lawsuit can proceed as a class action.

Clerk of Court – The court officer who oversees administrative functions, especially managing the flow of cases through the court. The clerk's office is often called a court's central nervous system.

Complaint – A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant.

Concurrent Sentence – Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of five years behind bars.

Consecutive Sentence – Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served consecutively, result in a maximum of 13 years behind bars.

Count – An allegation in an indictment or information, charging a defendant with a crime. An indictment or information may contain allegations that the defendant committed more than one crime. Each allegation is referred to as a count.

 

Damages – Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).

Declaratory Judgment – A judge's statement about someone's rights. For example, a plaintiff may seek a declaratory judgment that a particular statute, as written, violates some constitutional right.

De Facto – Latin, meaning "in fact" or "actually." Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.

Default Judgment – A judgment awarding a plaintiff the relief sought in the complaint because the defendant has failed to appear in court or otherwise respond to the complaint.

De Jure – Latin, meaning "in law." Something that exists by operation of law.

De Novo – Latin, meaning "anew." A trial de novo is a completely new trial. Appellate review de novo implies no deference to the trial judge's ruling.

Discharge – A release of a debtor from personal liability for certain debts, preventing creditors from taking any action against the debtor or the debtor’s property to collect the debts.

Discovery – Procedures used to obtain disclosure of evidence before trial.

Dismissal with Prejudice – Court action that prevents an identical lawsuit from being filed later.

Dismissal without Prejudice – Court action that allows the later filing.

Due Process – In criminal law, the constitutional guarantee that a defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial. In civil law, the legal rights of someone who confronts an adverse action threatening liberty or property.

 

En Banc – French, meaning "on the bench." All judges of an appellate court sitting together to hear a case, as opposed to the routine disposition by panels of three judges. In the Ninth Circuit, an en banc panel consists of the chief judge and 14 other, randomly selected, judges.

Exclusionary Rule – Doctrine that says evidence obtained in violation of a criminal defendant's constitutional or statutory rights is not admissible at trial.

Exculpatory Evidence – Evidence indicating that a defendant did not commit the crime.

Ex Parte – A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.

 

Federal Public Defender Organization – As provided for in the Criminal Justice Act, an organization established within a federal judicial circuit to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford an adequate defense. Each organization is supervised by a federal public defender appointed by the court of appeals for the circuit.

Felony – A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.

 

Habeas Corpus – Latin, meaning "you have the body." A writ of habeas corpus generally is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner's continued confinement. Federal judges receive petitions for a writ of habeas corpus from state prison inmates who say their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights in some way.

Hearsay – Evidence presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. With some exceptions, hearsay generally is not admissible as evidence at trial.

 

In Camera – Latin, meaning in a judge's chambers. Often means outside the presence of a jury and the public. In private.

Inculpatory Evidence – Evidence indicating that a defendant did commit the crime.

Injunction – A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.

Interrogatories – A form of discovery consisting of written questions to be answered in writing and under oath.

 

Judicial Conference of the United States – The policy-making entity for the federal court system. A 27-judge body whose presiding officer is the Chief Justice of the United States.

Jurisdiction – The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.

 

Moot – Not subject to a court ruling because the controversy has not actually arisen, or has ended.

Motion in Limine – A pretrial motion requesting the court to prohibit the other side from presenting, or even referring to, evidence on matters said to be so highly prejudicial that no steps taken by the judge can prevent the jury from being unduly influenced.

 

Per Curiam – Latin, meaning "for the court." In appellate courts, often refers to an unsigned opinion.

Peremptory Challenge – A district court may grant each side in a civil or criminal trial the right to exclude a certain number of prospective jurors without cause or giving a reason.

Probation – An alternative to prison, it is conditional freedom for an offender.

Pro Se – Representing oneself. Serving as one's own lawyer.

Pro Tem – Temporary.

 

Remand – Send back.

 

Sanction – A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.

Senior Judge – A federal judge who, after attaining the requisite age and length of judicial experience, takes senior status, thus creating a vacancy among a court's active judges. A senior judge retains the judicial office and may cut back his or her workload by as much as 75 percent, but many opt to keep a larger caseload.

Standard of Proof – Degree of proof required. In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." The majority of civil lawsuits require proof "by a preponderance of the evidence" (50 percent plus), but in some the standard is higher and requires "clear and convincing" proof.

Statute of Limitations – The time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begun. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of civil case or the crime charged.

Sua Sponte – Latin, meaning "of its own will." Often refers to a court taking an action in a case without being asked to do so by either side.

Subpoena – A command, issued under a court's authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.

 

Temporary Restraining Order – Akin to a preliminary injunction, it is a judge's short-term order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted. Often referred to as a TRO.

341 Meeting – A meeting of creditors at which the debtor is questioned under oath by creditors, a trustee, examiner, or the United States trustee about his/her financial affairs.

Tort – A civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract.

Trustee – The representative of the bankruptcy estate who exercises statutory powers, principally for the benefit of the unsecured creditors, under the general supervision of the court and the direct supervision of the United States trustee or bankruptcy administrator.

 

Venue – The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction. A change of venue is a change or transfer of a case from one judicial district to another.

Voir Dire – Jury selection process of questioning prospective jurors, to ascertain their qualifications and determine any basis for challenge.

 

Warrant – Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.

Writ – A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.


 

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