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Law: Glossary of Legal Terms

This guide provides students with a starting place to conducting research in the area of law.



Appellate - An appellate court has the power to review the judgment of  lower court (trial court) or tribunal. An example of this would be a U.S. circuit court reviewing a U.S. district courts ruling. 

Arraignment - A proceeding in which a criminal defendant is told the charges against them and asked to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest.



Bench trial - A trial without a jury, in which a judge serves as the fact-finder and makes their decision. 

Brief - Written statement submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding explaining one side's legal and factual arguments. 



Case Law - The law as established through previous courts decisions. This is another word for legal precedent. 

Case Note -  A summary and analysis of the facts of a particular case, especially to illustrate or debate some aspect of law.

Cause of action - Any legal claim.

Civil law-  The body of laws of a state or nation regulating ordinary, private matters, as opposed to criminal or military matters.  

Common law - The legal system that originate in England and is now applied in the United States. Law is derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes.



Defendant- An individual against whom a lawsuit is filed. Or, in a civil case, the person against whom the plaintiff brings a suit. In a criminal case it is the individual accused of a crime. 

Due Process - In criminal law the constitution guarantees a defendant receive a fair and impartial trial. In civil law, the legal rights of someone who confronts an adverse action threatening liberty or property. 



Evidence - Information presented in testimony or in documents that is used to persuade the fact finder (judge or jury) to decide the case in favor of one side or the other.



Federal question jurisdiction - Jurisdiction given to federal courts in cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties.

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



Grand Jury - A body of 16-23 citizens who listen to evidence of criminal allegations, presented by the prosecutors, and determine whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offense. 



Habeus Corpus  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.



Indictment - The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies. See also information.

Issue - The disputed point between parties in a lawsuit.



Judge - An official of the Judicial branch with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts. Used generically, the term judge may also refer to all judicial officers, including Supreme Court justices.

Judgment - The official decision of a court finally resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit.

Jury - The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact. See also grand jury.



Law Review Articles- A law review (or law journal) is a scholarly journal focusing on legal issues. Articles are published by an organization of students at a law school or through a bar association. Law review articles will focus on a legal issue and will cover a narrow topic in great depth. 

Lawsuit - A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty which resulted in harm to the plaintiff.

Legal Encyclopedia - A resource that gives a broad overview of a legal subject area.

Litigation - A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.



Misdemeanor - An offense punishable by one year of imprisonment or less.

Mistrial - An invalid trial, caused by fundamental error. When a mistrial is declared, the trial must start again with the selection of a new jury.



Opinion - A judge's written explanation of the decision of the court. Because a case may be heard by three or more judges in the court of appeals, the opinion in appellate decisions can take several forms. If all the judges completely agree on the result, one judge will write the opinion for all. If all the judges do not agree, the formal decision will be based upon the view of the majority, and one member of the majority will write the opinion. The judges who did not agree with the majority may write separately in dissenting or concurring opinions to present their views. A dissenting opinion disagrees with the majority opinion because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law the majority used to decide the case. A concurring opinion agrees with the decision of the majority opinion, but offers further comment or clarification or even an entirely different reason for reaching the same result. Only the majority opinion can serve as binding precedent in future cases. See also precedent.

Oral Argument - An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges' questions.



Periodicals- Trade publications for the legal profession targeted at lawyers, paralegals, judges, and government civil servants. They contain commentary on current and proposed legislation as well as on recent court decisions and administrative rulings.

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

Plaintiff - A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.

Precedent - A court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally "follow precedent" - meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case.

Procedure - The rules for conducting a lawsuit; there are rules of civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, bankruptcy, and appellate procedure.

Prosecute - To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government



Remand - Send back, usually an order given by a higher court to a lower court after the higher court has clarified something.

Reverse - The act of a court setting aside the decision of a lower court. A reversal is often accompanied by a remand to the lower court for further proceedings.



Statute- A law passed by a legislature.

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



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

Tort - This is not a delicious pastry it is a civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract.



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



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 in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

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


This glossary was created with the help of the US Courts Glossary