Glossary

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

A

 

Acquittal

Judgment that a criminal defendant has not been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, a verdict of "not guilty."

Affidavit

A written statement of facts confirmed by the oath of the party making it, before a notary or officer having authority to administer oaths.

Appeal

A request made after a trial by a party that has lost on one or more issues that a higher court (appellate court) review the trial court's decision to determine if it was correct. To make such a request is "to appeal" or "to take an appeal." One who appeals is called the "appellant;" the other party is the "appellee."

Appellate

About appeals; an appellate court has the power to review the judgment of a lower court (trial court) or tribunal. For example, the U.S. circuit courts of appeals review the decisions of the U.S. district courts.

Arraignment

A proceeding 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.

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B

 

Bail

Security given for the release of a criminal defendant or witness from legal custody (usually in the form of money) to secure his appearance on the day and time set by the court.

Bench trial

Trial without a jury in which a judge decides which party prevails.

Brief

A written statement submitted by each party in a case that explains why the court should decide the case, or particular issues in a case, in that party's favor.

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C

 

Chambers

A judge's office, typically including work space for the judge's law clerks and secretary.

Capital Offense

A crime punishable by death.

Case Law

The law as reflected in the written decisions of the courts.

Chief Judge

The judge who has primary responsibility for the administration of a court; chief judges are determined by seniority.

Conviction

A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.

Counsel

Legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a case.

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D

 

Damages

Money paid by defendants to successful plaintiffs in civil cases to compensate the plaintiffs for their injuries.

Default Judgment

A judgment rendered in favor of the plaintiff because of the defendant's failure to answer or appear to contest the plaintiff's claim.

Deposition

An oral statement made before an officer authorized by law to administer oaths. Such statements are often taken to examine potential witnesses, to obtain discovery, or to be used later in trial.

Discovery

The process by which lawyers learn about their opponent's case in preparation for trial. Typical tools of discovery include depositions, interrogatories, requests for admissions, and requests for documents. All of these devices help the lawyer learn the relevant facts and collect and examine any relevant documents or other materials.

Docket

A log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.

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E

 

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.

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F

 

Federal Public Defender

An attorney employed by the federal courts on a full-time basis to provide legal defense to defendants who are unable to afford counsel. The judiciary administers the federal defender program pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act.

Felony

A serious crime carrying a penalty of more than a year in prison.

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G

 

Grand Jury

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

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H

 

Habeas Corpus

A writ (court order) that is usually used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of his imprisonment. Someone imprisoned in state court proceedings can file a petition in federal court for a "writ of habeas corpus," seeking to have the federal court review whether the state has violated his or her rights under the U.S. Constitution. Federal prisoners can file habeas petitions as well. A writ of habeas corpus may also be used to bring a person in custody before the court to give testimony or to be prosecuted.

Hearsay

Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. Hearsay is usually not admissible as evidence in court.

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I

 

Impeachment

1. The process of calling a witness's testimony into doubt. For example, if the attorney can show that the witness may have fabricated portions of his testimony, the witness is said to be "impeached;"
2. The constitutional process whereby the House of Representatives may "impeach" (accuse of misconduct) high officers of the federal government, who are then tried by the Senate.

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.

Injunction

A court order prohibiting a defendant from performing a specific act, or compelling a defendant to perform a specific act.

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J

 

Jurisdiction

1. The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a case;
2. The geographic area over which the court has authority to decide cases.

Jury

The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact.

Jury Instructions

A judge's directions to the jury before it begins deliberations regarding the factual questions it must answer and the legal rules that it must apply.

Jurisprudence

The study of law and the structure of the legal system.

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M

 

Magistrate Judge

A judicial officer of a district court who conducts initial proceedings in criminal cases, decides criminal misdemeanor cases, conducts many pretrial civil and criminal matters on behalf of district judges, and decides civil cases with the consent of the parties.

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.

Motion

A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.

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N

 

Nolo Contendere

No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

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O

 

Opinion

A judge's written explanation of the decision of the court.

Oral Argument

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

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P

 

Petit Jury (or trial jury)

A group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons. Federal civil juries consist of at least six persons.

Petty Offense

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

Plea

In a criminal case, the defendant's statement pleading "guilty" or "not guilty" in answer to the charges.

Pleadings

Written statements filed with the court which describe a party's legal or factual assertions about the case.

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.

Pre-Sentence Report

A report prepared by a court's probation officer, after a person has been convicted of an offense, summarizing for the court the background information needed to determine the appropriate sentence.

Pretrial Conference

A meeting of the judge and lawyers to plan the trial, to discuss which matters should be presented to the jury, to review proposed evidence and witnesses, and to set a trial schedule. Typically, the judge and the parties also discuss the possibility of settlement of the case.

Pretrial Services

A department of the district court that conducts an investigation of a criminal defendant's background in order to help a judge decide whether to release the defendant into the community before trial.

Probation

A sentencing alternative to imprisonment in which the court releases convicted defendants under supervision of a probation officer, who makes certain that the defendant follows certain rules (e.g., gets a job, gets drug counseling, etc).

Probation Officer

Officers of the probation office of a court. Probation officer duties include conducting pre sentence investigations, preparing pre sentence reports on convicted defendants, and supervising released defendants.

Pro Se

A Latin term meaning "on one's own behalf"; in courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.

Prosecute

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

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R

 

Record

A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.

Remand

The act of an appellate court sending a case to a lower court for further proceedings.

Reverse

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

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S

 

Sentence

The punishment ordered by a court for a defendant convicted of a crime.

Sentencing Guidelines

A set of rules and principles established by the United States Sentencing Commission that trial judges use to determine the sentence for a convicted defendant.

Sequester

To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.

Statute

A law passed by a legislature.

Subpoena

A command, issued under authority of a court or other authorized government entity, to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Subpoena Duces Tecum

A command to a witness to appear and produce documents.

Summary Judgment

A decision made on the basis of statements and evidence presented for the record without a trial. It is used when it is not necessary to resolve any factual disputes in the case.

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T

 

Temporary Restraining Order

Prohibits a person from taking an action that is likely to cause irreparable harm. This differs from an injunction in that it may be granted immediately, without notice to the opposing party, and without a hearing. It is intended to last only until a hearing can be held. Sometimes referred to as a "T.R.O."

Testimony

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

Transcript

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

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U

 

U.S. Attorney

A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute and defend cases for the federal government. The U.S. Attorney employs a staff of Assistant U.S. Attorneys who appear as the government's attorneys in individual cases.

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V

 

Venue

The geographical location in which a case is tried.

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.

Voir Dire

The process by which judges and lawyers select a trial jury from among those eligible to serve, by questioning them to make certain that they would fairly decide the case. "Voir dire" is a phrase meaning "to speak the truth."

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W

 

Warrant

A written order authorizing official action by law enforcement officials, usually directing them to arrest the individual named in the warrant. A search warrant orders that a specific location be searched for items, which if found, can be used in court as evidence.

Witness

A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.

Writ

A formal written command or order, issued by the court, requiring the performance of a specific act.

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