A Glossary of Legal Terms

Amicus Curiae – a "friend of the court" who is not part of a legal case but submits information to a court. 

Appeal – the review by a higher court of a trial held in a lower court on grounds that an error has been committed.

Appellate court – a court which has the authority to review decisions of lower courts and reverse them if it finds they have made an error.

Arraignment – the stage of a legal process when the accused appears before a court to hear the criminal charge against him or her and is asked to enter a plea of "guilty" or "not guilty."  

Brief – a written document which serves as the basis of the legal argument made before a court.

Certiorari – a writ or an order from an appellate court to a lower court asking it to deliver the proceedings of a trial for review. 

Class action – a lawsuit brought by a large group of people who have a common interest or injury.

Complaint – the paper which a plaintiff serves upon a defendant and submits to a court of law, which details the alleged legal injury and how it could be put right. 

Concurring opinion – an opinion delivered by a justice of the Supreme Court or appeals court judge which agrees with the majority decision in the case but gives other reasons for doing so. 

Defendant – the person who is accused of a crime in a criminal case or is being sued by the plaintiff in a civil case.

Dissenting opinion – an opinion delivered by a justice or a judge which disagrees with the majority decision and the logic behind it. 

Double jeopardy – being tried twice for the same criminal offense, a practice which is barred by the Fifth Amendment.

Due process of law – the steps that are required for a fair hearing or proceeding in a court of law.  There are due process clauses in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments which define what due process is.  

Enjoin – to stop something from being done, as by the issuing of an injunction.

Exclusionary rule – evidence which has been obtained unlawfully under the Fourth Amendment can be excluded from court.

Ex parte – a legal proceeding undertaken for or by only one side of a dispute.

Grand jury – a group of citizens who meet to assess the evidence and decide whether to charge a person with a crime.  If it decides the trial can go forward, it issues an indictment. 

Habeas corpus – a court order that requires a prisoner to be brought before a judge to see if he or she is being legally imprisoned.

Impeachment – a process undertaken against the president or other public official accusing him or her of a crime or misconduct.  The House of Representatives draws up articles of impeachment against an official in the executive or judicial branch, who is then tried before the Senate.  If the person is found guilty, he or she loses his job. 

Injunction – a court order directing an action to be stopped.

Judicial restraint – when judges retrain from overruling actions taken by other branches of government.

Judicial review – a court's power to examine laws made by other branches of government and strike them down if they are seen to be unlawful.

Libel – a false, written or printed statement that damages a person's reputation.

Mandamus – a writ issued by a court to force another court or official to do something.

Moot – applies to cases which no longer need to be resolved because the controversy that led to them is no longer an issue.

Original jurisdiction – the legal authority of a court to be the first to hear a case.

Overbroad – a law that goes too far, and violates constitutional protections.

Overrule – to set aside or reject.

Per curiam – an unsigned decision by the court as a whole rather than by one particular judge, which does not involve a detailed discussion of the legal issues.

Perjury – giving false testimony under oath.

Plaintiff – the person who brings a lawsuit against another person (the defendant).

Precedent – a judicial decision that can guide later decisions. 

Preliminary injunction – a temporary court order for a party to a legal case to either do something or stop doing something until the case if finally settled. 

Probable cause – solid grounds to believe a crime has or will be committed and that evidence will be found if a search is undertaken.

Reasonable suspicion –  when a search can be conducted in a public school.  This is a weaker standard than probable cause, but requires a factual basis. 

Relief – the money or other form of restitution that a person who has suffered an injury receives in a civil suit. 

Sedition – language or acts that stir rebellion against a government.

Seditious libel – written criticism that is seen to threaten a government or a nation's security.

Separate but equal – the doctrine which the Supreme Court once upheld that maintained racial segregation was legal if facilities for different races were of equal quality. 

Settlement agreement – the resolution of a legal dispute outside the courtroom.

Stare decisis – a doctrine under which courts base their opinions on previous decisions and legal precedents.

Summary judgment  - issued by a judge where the facts of a case are not contested and it is not necessary to hold a trial.

Tort – a wrongful act in civil law for which damages can be sought.

Warrant – an order issued by a judge or magistrate that directs a law enforcement officer to carry out a certain action, such as a search or arrest.

Writ – a court's written order demanding that something be done or stopped.