Glossary of Legal Terms                  

                                                                                                                                                                                

                                                                                                                                                                                

 

 

 

 


Acquittal

 

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

 

 

 

Adjourned

 

Judge stops or suspends court for the day or until a later date.

 

 

 

Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO)

 

The federal agency responsible for collecting court statistics, administering the federal court=s budget, and performing many other functions, under the direction of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

 

 

 

Admissible

 

Evidence that may be legally and properly considered by a jury or judge.

 

 

 

Adversary Process

 

The method courts use to resolve disputes. Through this process, each side has the right to present its case, call and question witnesses, with an independent fact finder, either judge or jury, who decides in favor of one side or the other.

 

 

 

Affidavit

 

A written or printed statement made under oath.

 

 

 

Affirmed

 

In an appellant case, it means the court of appeals has concluded that the lower court (i.e., district court) is correct.

 

 

 

Alternate juror

 

A juror selected in the same manner as a regular trial 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)

 

Settling a dispute outside the courtroom or full trial.  These methods include mediation, arbitration, and settlement.

 

 

 

Answer

 

The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint and sets forth the grounds for defense.

 

 

 


Appeal

 

A request, made after trial, asking another court (usually the court of appeals) to decide whether the trial was conducted properly.

 

 

 

 

Arbitration

 

The hearing of a dispute by an impartial third person (chosen by the parties) whose award the parties agree to accept.

 

 

 

Arraignment

(pronounced  a-rain-ment)

 

A hearing in which an individual who is accused of committing a crime is brought into court, told of the charges, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.

 

 

 

Arrest

 

To take into legal custody.

 

 

 

Attorney

 

A person who represents a plaintiff or defendant in court or outside of court in a legal matter; also referred to as a Alawyer@ or Acounsel.@

 

 

 

Bankruptcy

 

Refers to federal statutes and judicial proceedings involving persons or businesses that cannot pay their debts and thus seek the assistance of the court in getting a Afresh start.@

 

 

 

Bankruptcy Administrator

 

An officer on the judiciary in the districts of Alabama and North Carolina, who are responsible for supervising bankruptcy cases, plans, estates, creditor meetings, and trustees.

 

 

 

Bankruptcy Judge

 

A federal judge, appointed for a fourteen-year term, who has authority to hear matters that arise under the bankruptcy code.

 

 

 

Bench Trial

 

A trial without a jury, in which the judge decides the facts.

 

 

 

Bench Warrant

 

An order issued by a judge for the arrest of a person.

 

 

 

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

 

The highest level of proof required to win a case.  This type of proof is necessary to get a guilty verdict in a criminal case.

 

 

 

Bill of Indictment

(pronounced  in-dite-ment)

 

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

 

 

 

Bill of Information

 

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

 

 

 

Bill of Particulars

 

A statement of the details of the charge made against the defendant.

 

 

 


Bond (also known as Bail Bond)

 

A written promise by the accused to secure his or her presence at the trial.  This means the accused may lose money by not appearing for any hearing.

 

 

 

Brief

 

A written statement submitted by the lawyer for each side that explains to the judge(s) why the ruling should be in the favor of their client.

 

 

 

Burden of Proof

 

The duty of a party in a lawsuit to persuade the judge or jury that enough facts exist to prove the allegations of the case.

 

 

 

Capital Offense

 

A crime punishable by death.

 

 

 

Case Law

 

Laws established by decisions made from other courts.

 

 

 

Chambers

 

A judge=s private office.

 

 

 

Chief District Judge

 

The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of the district court, but also decides cases.  Chief judges are determined by seniority.

 

 

 

Circumstantial Evidence

 

All evidence except eyewitness testimony.

 

 

 

Class Action

 

A lawsuit brought by one or more persons on behalf of a larger group.

 

 

 

Clerk of Court

 

An officer appointed by the court to work with the chief judge and other judges in overseeing the court=s administration, especially to assist in managing the flow of the cases through the court.

 

 

 

Complaint

 

A written statement by the person starting a civil lawsuit that states the wrongs allegedly committed by the defendant.

 

 

 

Concurrent Sentence

 

Prison terms on two or more offenses to be served at the same time.  For example, Two five-year sentences, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of a five year prison term.

 

 

 

Consecutive Sentence

 

Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other.  For example, Two five-year sentences, if served consecutive, result in a maximum of a 10 year prison term.

 

 

 

Contempt of Court

 

Willful disobedience of a judge=s command or an official court order.

 

 

 

Continuance

 

Postponement of a hearing to a later date.

 

 

 

Contract

 

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

 

 

 


Conviction

 

The result of a criminal trial in which a person is found guilty.

 

 

 

Corroborating Evidence

 

Evidence that tends to strengthen or confirm the initial evidence.

 

 

 

Counsel

 

A lawyer or a team of lawyers.  This term is often used during a trial to refer to lawyers in a case.

 

 

 

Court

 

An agency of the government that resolves legal disputes.  ACourt@ is sometimes another word for Athe judge.@

 

 

 

Court Appointed Counsel

 

Lawyer appointed by the judge to represent a defendant.

 

 

 

Court Reporter

 

A person who types every word said in a hearing, and produces a typewritten document, known as a transcript.

 

 

 

Court Security Officer (or CSO)

 

The officer who screens visitors as they come in the federal courthouse.  They also maintain order in the court.  In state court, they are known as Abailiffs.@

 

 

 

Courtroom Deputy (or Deputy Clerk)

 

A court employee who assists the judge by keeping track of witnesses, evidence and other trial matters, and sometimes by scheduling cases.

 

 

 

Crime

 

The act of breaking the law.

 

 

 

Criminal Trial

 

The official court proceeding that decides if one is guilty of breaking the law.

 

 

 

Cross- (and re-cross) Examination

 

The questioning of a witness by a lawyer for the opposing side.

 

 

 

Custody

 

Lawfully detaining a person; keeping a person convicted of a crime in jail.

 

 

 

Damages

 

Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case that the plaintiff has won.  Damages pay the plaintiff for his or her injuries.

 

 

 

Default Judgment

 

A ruling awarding a plaintiff the relief sought in the complaint because the defendant has failed to appear in court or respond to the complaint.

 

 

 

Defendant

 

In a civil case, it is the person complained against.  In a criminal case, it is the person accused of a crime.

 

 

 


De Novo

 

A Latin term meaning Aanew.@  A trial de novo is a completely new trial.

 

 

 

Deposition

 

An oral statement of a witness or party taken under oath outside the courtroom.  This testimony can be used later in trial.

 

 

 

Detained        

 

See Custody.

 

 

 

Direct (and re-direct) Examination

 

The questioning of a witnesses by a lawyer who called the witness to testify, and brings out evidence for the fact finder (judge or jury).

 

 

 

Discovery

 

The lawyer=s examinations, before trial, of facts and documents that the opponents possess, to help the lawyers prepare for 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.

 

 

 

Docket

 

A log containing the complete history in each case.  A court docket is a list or calendar of cases to be tried on a certain term.

 

 

 

En Banc

 

French for Ain the bench@ or Afull bench.@  The term refers to a session in which all the judges on an appellate court (not just the panel) participate in the decision.  The U.S. Courts of Appeals usually sits in panels of three judges, but for important cases may expand the bench to a larger number, and they are then said to be sitting Aen banc.@

 

 

 

Evidence

 

Information in the form of testimony of a witness or documents that is presented to persuade the judge or jury.

 

 

 

Exhibit

 

A document or other item introduced as evidence during a trial or hearing.

 

 

 

Ex Parte

 

A proceeding brought before the court by one party only, without notice to the other side.

 

 

 

Federal Court

 

The court that is organized under the Constitution and laws of the federal government of the United States.

 

 

 

Federal Defenders Office

 

A panel of lawyers that represent those defendants that are unable to afford hiring a counsel. The federal defenders office also help educate and train the criminal defense lawyers (or bar).

 

 

 


Felony

 

A serious criminal crime that carries a penalty of more than a year in prison.

 

 

 

File

 

To electronically submit documents (or place a place a paper pleading) into the official custody of the clerk of court.

 

 

 

Fraud

 

A false representation which is intended to deceive another.

 

 

 

Government

 

When used in federal criminal cases, Agovernment@ refers to the lawyers in the U.S. Attorney=s Office who are prosecuting a case.

 

 

 

Grand Jury

 

A group of citizens whose duty is to listen to evidence and accusations of criminal activity presented by the government, and if they determine it is appropriate, issue a formal Bill of Indictment.  Federal grand juries have from 16- 23 persons and serve for about one year, sitting from one to five days a month.

 

 

 

Habeas Corpus

 

A Latin term meaning Ayou have the body.@  It is the name of writ forcing law enforcement to bring a prisoner to court and 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 their rights in some way.

 

 

 

Hearsay

 

The evidence that is presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else.  Hearsay evidence is usually not allowed (or admissible) as evidence in a trial.

 

 

 

Home Confinement

 

A special condition that requires a defendant to remain at home except for certain approved activities such as work.

 

 

 

Hostile Witness

 

A witness whose testimony is not favorable to the party who called him or her as a witness.

 

 

 

Hung Jury

 

A trial jury whose members cannot agree upon a verdict.

 

 

 

Impeachment of a Witness

 

An attack on the credibility (believability) of a witness, through evidence for the purpose of calling a witness testimony into doubt.

 

 

 

In Camera

 

A Latin term meaning Ain private.@  Term often means outside the presence of the jury and public.

 

 

 

In Forma Pauperis

 

AIn the manner of a pauper.@  Term refers to the permission given by the court to a person to file a case without paying the court fees because the person cannot pay them.

 

 

 


Initial Appearance

 

The defendant comes before a magistrate judge within hours of his arrest to determine whether or not there is probable cause for his or her arrest.

 

 

 

Injunction

 

A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action.

 

 

 

Jointly and Severally Liable

 

Making each of the parties responsible for an injury, and liable to pay the damages awarded.

 

 

 

Judge

 

A government official that has the authority to preside over lawsuits and decides questions about the law.

 

 

 

Judgment

 

The official decision of a court resolving a dispute or case.

 

 

 

Judicial Review

 

The authority of court, in a case involving either a law passed by legislature, or an action by an executive branch officer or employee, to determine whether the law or action is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution, and to declare the law or action invalid if it is inconsistent.

 

 

 

Jurisdiction

 

The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case.  Term also means the geographical area over which the court has authority to decide cases.

 

 

 

Jury Administrator

 

The court officer responsible for choosing the panel of persons to serve as potential jurors.

 

 

 

Jury Foreperson

 

A person who is a member of a trial jury and acts as a lead juror, but has the same vote as all the other jurors.

 

 

 

Jury Instructions (or Jury Charge)

 

A judge=s directions to the jury before it begins deliberations.  The instructions cover the questions it must answer and the legal rules that it must apply before reaching a verdict.

 

 

 

Jury Selection

 

See Voir Dire.

 

 

 

Jury Trial

 

A trial that selects a Apetit@ jury to listen to the testimony and evidence from both the plaintiff and defendant, and after all the evidence has been heard, the jury decides the verdict of a case.  Jury trials are usually made up of six to 12 jurors.

 

 

 

Law Clerk

 

An attorney who provides a judge, magistrate or lawyer which assistance in legal research.

 

 

 

Lawsuit

 

A civil court action alleging that another party failed to perform a legal duty.

 

 

 

Liable

 

Legally responsible.

 

 

 


Litigants

 

See Parties.

 

 

 

Magistrate Judge

 

In federal court, this refers to the judge who assists district judges by hearing preliminary matters, and they issue warrants for arrest and search warrants.  Magistrate Judges does not conduct felony trials.  If all parties agree (or consent), civil trials and criminal misdemeanor trials can be heard by them.

 

 

 

Mediation

 

A form of resolution in which parties bring their dispute to a neutral third party, who helps them agree on a settlement.

 

 

 

Minutes

 

Notes takes by a deputy clerk on all hearings and trials conducted by the judge.

 

 

 

Misdemeanor

 

A criminal offense that is less severe than a felony, and is generally punishable by a fine only or by imprisonment of less than a year.

 

 

 

Mistrial

 

A trial that has been terminated because of some event, mistake in procedure, error that is prejudicial to the defendant, or because a jury is unable to reach a verdict.

 

 

 

Mitigating Circumstances

 

Those which do not constitute a excuse for an offense but which may be considered as reasons for reducing the degree of blame.

 

 

 

Moot

 

Not subject to a court ruling because the issue has not arisen, or has ended.

 

 

 

Motion

 

How a lawyer asks the judge to make a decision, either in written or verbal form.

 

 

 

Naturalization

 

Process by which a person acquires nationality after birth and becomes entitled to privileges of citizenship.

 

 

 

Notice of Removal

 

The transfer of a state case to federal court for trial.

 

 

 

Objection

 

The term used when a lawyer is in conflict or does not agree with something being said in court.

 

 

 


Opening Statement

 

The initial statement made by lawyers for each side, outlining the facts each intends to establish during the trial.

 

 

 

Opinion

 

A judge=s written explanation in a case or some aspect of the case.  An opinion of the court explains the decision of the court or the majority of the judges.  A Adissenting@ opinion is an explanation by one or more judges if they believe the decision or opinion is wrong.  A Aconcurring@ opinion agrees with the decision of the court but offers further comment or a different reason for the decision.  A Aper curiam@ opinion is an opinion for the court not signed by an individual judge.

 

 

 

Oral Argument

 

An opportunity for the lawyers on each side to summarize their positions and answer the judges= questions.

 

 

 

Overruled

 

The term the judge uses when he rules against or disallows a lawyers objection.

 

 

 

Panel

 

In appellant cases, it is a group of three judges assigned to decide the case.  In jury selection, it refers to the group of potential jurors.  In criminal cases, it is a group of private lawyers who the court approved to be appointed to represent defendants unable to hire lawyers.

 

 

 

Parties

 

The plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) to a lawsuit or case, and their lawyers.

 

 

 

Peremptory Challenge

 

Request by a party that a judge not allow a certain prospective juror as a member of the jury.

 

 

 

Perjury

 

The criminal offense of making a false statement under oath.

 

 

 

Petit Jury (or Jury Trial)

 

A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at a trial and determine the facts in dispute.  Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons (sometimes with one or two alternates) and federal civil juries consist of at least 6 jurors.  APetit@ is the French for Asmall,@ thus distinguishing the trial jury from the larger grand jury.

 

 

 

Petty Offense

 

A federal misdemeanor punishable by six months or less in prison.

 

 

 

Petitioner

 

The person filing an action in a court.  Also the person who appeals the judgment of a lower court.

 

 

 

Plaintiff

 

A person who files a complaint in a civil lawsuit.

 

 

 


Plea

 

In a criminal case, the defendant=s declaration of Aguilty@ or Anot guilty@ of the charges.

 

 

 

Plea Agreement

 

An agreement between the prosecutor and the defense to bypass going to trial in exchange for a guilty plea for the same or lesser offense.

 

 

 

Pleadings

 

Written statements of the parties stating their positions about the case.

 

 

 

Polling the Jury

 

The act, after a jury verdict has been announced, of asking jurors individually whether they agree with the verdict.

 

 

 

Post-Trial

 

Refers to events happening after the trial.

 

 

 

Precedent

(pronounced  press-a-dent)

 

A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to those in a case currently before a court.

 

 

 

Presentence Investigation Report

 

A probation officer=s report prepared from an investigation conducted at the request of the court after a defendant is convicted of a crime.  It provides a judge information to determine an appropriate sentence for the defendant.

 

 

 

Pretrial Conference

 

A meeting of the judge and lawyers in a case to decide which matters are in dispute and should be presented to the jury, review evidence and witnesses to testify, set a timetable for a case, and sometimes discuss settlement of the case.

 

 

 

Probation

 

A sentencing option in place of sending a person to prison.  Once a person is on probation, the court orders them to abide by certain conditions for a period of time, which is supervised by a probation officer.

 

 

 

Probable Cause

 

A reasonable belief that a crime has or is being committed. It is the basis for lawful searches, seizures and arrests.

 

 

 

Probation Officer

 

Officers working in the probation office of a court.  Their duties include preparing presentence investigation reports and supervising released defendants.

 

 

 

Pro Hac Vice

(pronounced  pro-hock-vee-chay)

 

A Latin term meaning Afor this event.@  The phrase usually refers to an out-of-state lawyer who has been granted permission to participate in a particular case, even though the lawyer is not licensed to practice law in the state where the case is being tried.

 

 

 


Pro Se

(pronounced  pro-say)

 

A Latin term meaning Aon one=s own behalf.@  In courts, it refers to persons who does not hire a lawyer, but present their own cases.

 

 

 

Prosecutes

 

To charge a person or organization with a crime or a civil violation, and seek to gain a criminal conviction or a civil judgment against a person or organization.

 

 

 

Prosecutor

 

The lawyer who represents the United States of America (or the state) in a criminal trial.

 

 

 

Punitive Damages

 

Money award given to punish the defendant or wrongdoer.

 

 

 

Quash

 

To vacate or void a summons, subpoena, etc.

 

 

 

Reasonable Doubt

 

An accused person is entitled to acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, his or her guilt has not been proved beyond a Areasonable doubt.@

 

 

 

Recess

 

See Adjourned.

 

 

 

Record

 

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

 

 

 

Respondent

 

The person against whom an appeal is taken.

 

 

 

Rest

 

A party is said to Arest@ or Arest its case@ when it has presented all the evidence it intends to offer the judge or jury.

 

 

 

Recuse

 

The process by which a judge is disqualified from hearing a case, on his or her own motion, or upon objection of a party.

 

 

 

Remand

 

Sends back. When an appellate court sends a case back to a lower court (i.e. district court) for further proceedings.

 

 

 

Restitution

 

Act of restoring anything to it=s rightful owner.  It is often referred to as an economic loss that a defendant is ordered to repay.

 

 

 

Reverse

 

When an appellate court sets aside the decision of a lower court (i.e. district court) because of an error.  A reversal is often followed by a remand.

 

 

 

Rules of Evidence

 

Standards governing whether evidence in a civil or criminal case is admissible.

 

 

 


Search Warrant

 

A written order issued by a judge that directs law enforcement to search a specific area for a particular piece of evidence.

 

 

 

Senior Judge

 

A federal judge who, after attaining a certain age and length of judicial experience, takes senior status, thus creating a vacancy among a court=s active judges.  A senior judge retains his office and may cut back his case load as much as 75 percent.

 

 

 

Sentence

 

The punishment given to a person who has been convicted of a crime.

 

 

 

Settle (or Settlement)

 

In legal terms, when the parties to a lawsuit agree to resolve their differences among themselves without having a trial.

 

 

 

Sequester

 

To separate.  Sometimes juries or witnesses are Asequestered@ from outside influences.

 

 

 

Sidebar

 

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

 

 

 

Speedy Trial Act

 

Federal law setting time limits for carrying out major events in a criminal prosecution.

 

 

 

Standards of Proof

 

Indicates the degree to which the point must be proven.

 

 

 

Statute

 

A law passed by legislature.

 

 

 

Statute of Limitations

 

The time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begun.

 

 

 

Sua Sponte

 

A Latin term, meaning Aof 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.

 

 

 

Summary Judgment

 

A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial.

 

 

 

Summons

 

A paper that is prepared by the plaintiff and issued by the court, that informs the defendant that he or she has been sued.

 

 

 


Supervised Release

 

A term of supervision served after a person is released from prison.  Unlike parole, supervised release does not replace a portion of the sentence of imprisonment, but is in addition to the time spent in prison.  U.S. probation officers supervise persons on supervised release.

 

 

 

Sustained

 

Judge favors or accepts the doubt or objection offered by the lawyer.

 

 

 

Suppress

 

To forbid the use of evidence at a trial because it is improper or was improperly obtained.

 

 

 

Temporary Restraining Order (TRO)

 

A short-term order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted.

 

 

 

Term

 

A time during which a court has court in session.

 

 

 

Testimony

 

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

 

 

 

Third Party Complaint

 

A petition filed by a defendant against a third party which states the third party is liable for all or part of the damages plaintiff may win from defendant.

 

 

 

Transcript

 

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

 

 

 

U.S. Attorney

 

A lawyer appointed by the President of the United States in each judicial district that prosecutes cases for the federal government.

 

 

 

U.S. Federal Judge

 

A judge appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, in accordance with Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  A federal judge is also known as a AU.S. District Court Judge,@ or an AArticle III Judge.@

 

 

 

U.S. Marshal=s Service

 

Federal agency which serves civil and criminal process in federal courts.

 

 

 

Uphold

 

When an appellant court agrees with the lower court (i.e., district court) and allows it to stand.

 

 

 

Vacate

 

To set aside.

 

 

 

Venue

 

The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction.  A change of venue@ is a change or transfer of a case to another district.

 

 

 


Verdict

 

The decision made by a trial jury or judge that determines the guilt or innocence of a criminal defendant, or that determines the final outcome of a civil case.

 

 

 

Voir Dire

(pronounced  vwahr deer)

 

Meaning Ato speak the truth,@ it is the process of questioning prospective jurors, to ascertain their qualifications and select a petit jury.  This term is commonly referred to as jury selection.

 

 

 

Warrant

 

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

 

 

 

Witness

 

A person called upon by either side to tell the truth about what he or she has seen or knows about a crime or lawsuit.

 

 

 

Writ of Certiorari

 

An order issued by the U.S. Supreme Court directing a lower court to transmit records for a case which it will hear on appeal.

 

 

 

Your Honor

 

The way a judge is addressed in a courtroom.