Glossary of legal terms
Acquit/acquitted – The defendant is not guilty or evidence is insufficient to find guilt, whether determined by a jury or a judge.
Admissible – Information or evidence that a judge or magistrate says may be used in a proceeding.
Affidavit – A sworn statement in document form.
Alternate juror – A juror who hears all evidence but who is not included in deliberations unless another juror is excused or removed.
Amicus curiae – Information provided to the court by a “friend” who is not part of the trial or proceeding.
Appeal/appellant – When a party loses a case the appellant (person requesting) may ask a higher court to review the information to determine whether an error was made.
Arraignment – An initial, pre-trial court appearance in which the defendant is brought to court to hear charges against him and to enter a plea (guilty or not guilty).
Automatic stay – In bankruptcy, all claims, debts, garnishments, and other collection efforts are suspended (stayed) when an individual files for court (bankruptcy) relief.
Bail – An agreement, secured with a financial commitment, that an individual will return to court to face charges.
Bankruptcy – A legal process for dealing with overwhelming debts that is available to individuals and businesses.
Bench trial – A trial heard by a judge only, no jury.
Brief – A document submitted to the court that provides a party’s legal position and argument.
Burden of proof – The responsibility of the prosecutor or plaintiff to make a case, including all evidence and testimony.
Capital offense – A crime punishable by death penalty.
Case file – All documents filed in a legal case.
Case law – History of previous cases that are similar or which set standards for court decisions and sentencing. Judges may review these when making a decision.
Cause of action – A legal argument.
Chapter 11 – A type of bankruptcy for businesses and individuals that allows reorganization or restructuring of debt.
Chapter 13 – A type of bankruptcy for individuals who are able to pay debts over a 3-5 year period established by a bankruptcy trustee.
Chapter 7 – Bankruptcy in which many of the petitioner’s assets are liquidated to pay debts.
Chapter 7 trustee – A qualified individual appointed to a bankruptcy case who oversees the process, including liquidating property and paying creditors.
Class action – A lawsuit brought by a large group of people against an entity, usually a corporation or organization, on behalf of an entire class (e.g. all customers or all ratepayers). District court must find that the case has standing before it can proceed.
Court clerk – An individual responsible for court administration, such as keeping records, supplying information or forms, and scheduling.
Community service – Commonly part of a sentence for misdemeanor, this requires the guilty party to work for an organization (sometimes a municipality) for free for a period of time.
Concurrent sentence – When two sentences for jail or prison time are served at the same time.
Consecutive sentence – When two or more sentences for jail or prison time are served one after the other without interruption.
Contract – An agreement (oral or in writing) between two parties to perform a task.
Conviction – A finding of guilt or responsibility by a court (judge, jury, or magistrate).
Damages – Money to be paid by a guilty party to a person or entity harmed by his actions.
De jure – Latin for “in law;” something that exists in accordance with the law.
De novo – Latin for “anew;” often used to denote a case going to an appeals court without prejudice or adherence to the lower court’s decision.
Declaratory judgement – A statement about rights made by a judge.
Default judgement – When the plaintiff wins a case because the defendant didn’t show up.
Defendant – The person accused of wrongdoing (a crime) or against whom the plaintiff has filed a lawsuit.
Deposition – Sworn statements made in the presence of court officers that are to be used in a case.
Discharge – Payment of a debt or obligation.
Discovery – Pretrial process of sharing information that will be presented or referred to during a trial.
Dismissal – Closure of a case without conclusion; may be with or without prejudice (with prejudice means the case can’t be refiled; without prejudice means the case may be filed again).
Docket – The schedule of cases before the court, including a summary of each.
Due process – The promise of a fair and speedy trial guaranteed by the Constitution.
Ex parte – A portion of a case that only affects one party, such as a judge’s decision on a single matter.
Exclusionary rule – Tenet of law that does not allow evidence to be considered if it was gathered in violation of the party’s legal or Constitutional rights.
Exculpatory evidence – Proof that the individual is innocent.
Exemptions, exempt – Something that is excluded, such as certain properties or categories of belongings in bankruptcy liquidations.
Felony – A serious criminal charge that is punishable by one year or more in prison.
Grand jury – A group of 16-23 citizens gathered by the court to hear evidence presented by a prosecutor and to determine if sufficient probable cause exists to go to trial.
Habeas corpus – Latin for “you have the body.” Usually a legal order signed by a judge ordering law enforcement to bring forward a person they are holding.
Hearsay – Secondhand information that is not admissible in court.
Impeachment – The process of proving that testimony is false.
In camera – Latin for “in private.”
Inculpatory evidence – Proof that the defendant committed the crime or offense.
Indictment – Decision by a grand jury that there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial, usually on a felony charge.
Injunction – A court order preventing a party in a case to take a certain action. A preliminary injunction puts a portion of a trial on “pause” while the judge decides how to proceed.
Interrogatories – Sworn statements that are made in writing for use in a court case.
Judgement – A decision by a court. Often used in civil proceedings as a final resolution.
Jurisdiction – The area or subject over which an individual has authority.
Jury – The group of citizens called by the court to decide a case.
Jury instructions – Information the judge provides to guide a jury in its decision making.
Lien – A legal claim on an account or piece of property held in lieu of a debt payment.
Litigation – The legal process of prosecution or making a claim by lawsuit.
Magistrate – A district court officer with powers to hear pleas in felony cases, to decide certain misdemeanor cases, and may decide civil cases with consent of both parties.
Misdemeanor – A criminal charge punishable by one year confinement or less.
Mistrial – When an error is made in a trial that invalidates the proceeding so that it must begin anew.
Moot – A motion or portion of a case that is no longer relevant.
Motion – A formal request submitted for the court’s consideration.
Motion in limine – A request made before the trial to quash or prevent certain information from being presented in court because it is unfairly prejudicial.
Nolo contendere – A plea of “no contest” that is approximately the same as pleading guilty.
Nolle prosequi – Latin term for cancellation of a criminal case, usually decided by the prosecutor.
Opinion – A judge’s written explanation for their decision on a case, whether in favor or against the majority of other judges’ opinions (in appellate courts).
Oral argument – Statements that summarize the case before the judge, made by attorneys for both sides.
Panel – In appellate court, a panel is a small group of judges who hear the case.
Parole – When a prisoner is released on certain conditions after a portion of his sentence is served.
Peremptory challenge – Jurors who may be excused by either side of a case prior to trial for no specific reason.
Petty misdemeanor – A minor felony punishable by six months or fewer in prison.
Plaintiff – The party bringing a case (civil) before a court.
Plea – The defendant’s claim of guilty or not guilty prior to a trial beginning.
Pleadings – Written statements from both sides of a case that describe the party’s position.
Precedent – The way that similar questions of law were decided, or the sentence given for a similar crime.
Pretrial conference – A meeting of the attorneys and judge prior to a trial in which they review information provided in discovery, set a schedule, and discuss how the case will be heard.
Pro se – A litigant who acts as his own attorney.
Probation – A sentencing option, usually reserved for nonviolent offenders, that allows him to avoid jail or prison in exchange for a regular series of appointments with a probation officer and other conditions, which often include court-mandated classes, drug testing, and curfews.
Prosecute – The process of charging someone with a crime.
Record – A summary of the information presented at trial, including pleas, evidence, and exhibits.
Remand – To return or send back.
Reverse – When a court sets aside the decision of another, usually lower, court.
Sanction – A penalty used to encourage compliance with proper court processes.
Schedules – In bankruptcy, these are lists of financial information including assets and debts.
Secured debt – A note (loan) that is taken with real property as collateral.
Sentence – Punishment for a crime that is decided when the court finds the defendant guilty.
Sentencing guidelines – Rules that judges use to determine a defendant’s punishment; some are set by legislation (such as “three strikes” laws).
Sequester – Keeping separated, such as when a jury must be contained to counteract any outside influences.
Service of process – The requirement that summonses and other court documents (writs, etc.) be handed to the individual named by a court officer (such as a sheriff’s deputy or constable).
Settlement – When both sides in a (civil) lawsuit agree to a mutually agreeable legal resolution that ends litigation.
Standard of proof – Evidence required to remove any doubt: whether a “preponderance” (more than 50 percent certainty) or “clear and convincing.”
Statute – Law passed by state officials.
Subpoena – A legal command for an individual to appear and provide testimony.
Subpoena duces tecum – Latin, meaning for a witness to provide written testimony.
Temporary restraining order – A court document that prohibits certain actions until the court can act (such as having contact with another individual, geographic restriction, etc.).
Testimony – Oral evidence from witnesses, experts, and investigators.
Tort – In civil court, an intentional or negligent act (other than breach of contract).
Transcript – The full written document of a proceeding, including all testimony.
Undue hardship – In relation to discharging loans during bankruptcy, this is a test to explore the possibility of future repayment.
Unsecured claim – A loan or debt that was made without collateral.
Uphold – When an appellate court agrees with a lower court’s decision; affirm.
Verdict – The final decision of a court.
Voir dire – The process of selecting jurors by questioning their qualifications and suitability for service.
Wage garnishment – The process of collecting a debt by getting a court to agree to withhold a portion of the debtor’s future earnings.
Warrant – A court’s approval for police to take certain actions such as a search of premises or arrest.
Writ – A court order limiting a person’s actions.
Writ of certiorari – A Supreme Court’s directive to a lower court regarding case files for an appeal.