Glossary of Legal Terms

a fortiori
With greater force or reason.
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.
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).
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.
A written statement of facts voluntarily made under oath or affirmation.
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.
Prior to.
The procedure by which a case is taken to a superior court for a review
of the lower court's decision.
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.
The party usually satisfied with a lower court ruling against whom an
appeal is taken.
Unreasonable; capricious; not done in accordance with established
In the course of argument.
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.
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
To swear to; to be a witness.
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.
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

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.
A written argument of law and fact submitted to the court by an attorney
representing a party having an interest in a lawsuit.
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.
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
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
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
concurring opinion
An opinion that agrees with the result reached by the majority, but
disagrees as to the appropriate rationale for reaching that result.
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
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.
A purposeful failure to carry out an order of a court (civil contempt)
or a willful display of disrespect for the court (criminal contempt).
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.
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.
A party at the trial level being sued in a civil case or charged with a
crime in a criminal case.
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.
Sworn testimony taken out of court.
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.
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.
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.
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
en banc
An appellate court hearing with all the judges of the court
An order from a court requiring a party to do or refrain from doing
certain acts.
Law enforcement officials inducing an otherwise innocent person into the
commision of a criminal act.
Law based on principles of fairness rather than strictly applied
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.
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.
A serious criminal offense, usually punishable by incarceration of one
year or more.
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.
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.
Testimony not based on the personal knowledge of the witness, but a
repetition of what the witness has heard others say.
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.
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.
A document issued by a grand jury officially charging an individual with
criminal violations and binding the accused over for trial.
A document, serving the same purpose as an indictment, but issued
directly by the prosecutor.
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.
The authority of a court to hear and decide legal disputes and to
enforce its rulings.
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.
A party to a lawsuit.
A low level judge with limited authority.
"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.
The central issues of a case.
A less serious criminal act, usually punishable by less than one year of
A trial that is prematurely ended by a judge because of procedural
mitigating circumstances
Conditions that lower the moral blame of a criminal act, but do not
justify or excuse it.
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.
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
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
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.
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
petit jury
A trial court jury to decide criminal or civil cases.
A party seeking relief in court.
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.
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.
A previously decided case that serves as a guide for deciding a current
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
To annul, vacate, or totally do away with.
ratio decidendi
A court's primary reasoning for deciding a case the way it did.
The action of a judge not to participate in a case because of conflict
of interest or other disqualifying condition.
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.
The party against whom a legal action is filed.
An action by an appellate court setting aside or changing a decision of
a lower court.
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.
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.
A law passed by a legislative body.
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
(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.
temporary restraining order
A judicial order prohibiting certain challenged actions from being taken
prior to a full hearing on the question.
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.
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.
A party who has committed a tort.
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.
To void or rescind.
vel non
"Or not."
A juror.
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.
A judicial order authorizing an arrest or search and seizure.
A written order of a court commanding the recipient to perform or not to
perform certain specified acts.