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Pronunciation Key | Other Legal Dictionaries


acquitkwit) v. To find not guilty.

adversary system ( ad ver sär ē sis təm) n. Also known as the accusatorial system. In this system of justice, the two opposing parties present evidence. A judge runs the trial but does not investigate the case or otherwise play an active role. See also inquisitorial system.

affidavit (af fi dā vit ) n. A written statement made under oath.

affirm ferm) v. To uphold the ruling of a lower court.

amicus curiae kəs kyer ē ī ) n. A brief submitted by someone who is not a party to the case. (Latin for “friend of the court.”)

appealpēl) n. A request that an appellate court review a decision of a lower court.

appellantpel ənt) n. The party appealing the case. Also know as the petitioner. This party’s name goes first in the title to the case. Thus, in Brown v. Board of Education, Brown was the appellant and the Board of Education was the respondent.

appellate courtpel it kort) n. A court that hears appeals; not a trial court; an appeals court.

arbitrary (ar bə trär ē) adj. Decided by chance or whim instead of from a principle or rule.

arraignmentrān ment) n. A court hearing in which the defendant must enter a plea, such as guilty or not guilty.

arrestrest) v. To take a person into custody for the purpose of charging the person with a crime.

associate justice shē it jus tis) n. A title for a member of a court who is not the chief justice.

attorney at law See attorney.

attorneyter nē) n. A lawyer; legal counsel. A person authorized to practice law.

attorney generalterjen er əl) n. 1. The head of the U.S. Department of Justice and member of the president’s cabinet. 2. A state’s chief law officer, usually a statewide elected position.


bail (bāl) n. A pretrial procedure permitting an arrested person to stay out of jail by depositing a set amount of money as security that the person will show up for trial.

bench (bench) n. 1. The judge’s desk in the courtroom. 2. The position of being a judge.

bench trial (bench trī əl) n. A trial held before a judge alone without a jury.

bill of attainder (bil uv ə tān der) n. A legislative enactment that punishes a person in place of a trial. Banned by the U.S. Constitution.

Bill of Rights (bil uv rīts) n. The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which describe rights and protections guaranteed to each citizen.

brief (brēf) 1. n. A written legal argument submitted to a court. 2. n. A summary of an appellate court opinion, typically done by a law student. It summarizes the facts, holding, and reasoning. 3. v. To prepare a written legal argument. 4. v. To summarize an appellate court opinion.

burden of proof (ber dən uv prewf) n. The responsibility of proving facts in a case. In a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

burglary (ber glə rē) n. The illegal entry into any building with the intent to commit a crime, such as theft.


capital offense (kap ə təl ə fens) n. A crime punishable by death.

capital punishment (cap ə təl pun ish mənt) n. The death penalty. A capital crime is one that is punishable by death.

case in chief (kās in chēf) n. One side’s trial evidence. In a criminal trial, the prosecution presents its evidence first. After it rests its case, the defense presents its evidence.

case law (kās lo) n. Law made by judges interpreting constitutions, statutes, and other case law; judge-made law.

cause of action (koz uv ak shən) n. The facts that give rise to a legal basis to sue. 

certworthy (cert wer thē) adj. A case that raises an issue that merits the court’s granting a writ of certiorari.

checks and balances (cheks and bal əns es) n. A system of government in which the different branches limit each others’ powers.

chief justice (chēf jus tis) n. The lead judge in a court with more than one judge. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has one chief justice and eight associate justices.

civil case (siv əl kās) n. A non-criminal case. Typically, a civil case is a lawsuit between individuals or organizations seeking monetary compensation for damages.

civil court (siv əl kort) n. A court that handles civil cases.

clemency (klem ən sē) n. 1. Mercy. 2. A pardon.

common law (kom ən lo) n. 1. The judge-made law in England that evolved over centuries. 2. Judge-made law as opposed to statutory law.

compelling governmental interest (kəm pel ing guv ern mənt əl in trəst ) n. An extremely important, vital interest of government.

complaint (kəm plānt) n. In law, a written pleading submitted to a court to begin a lawsuit.

compulsory process (kəm pul sə rē pros es) n. A method for obtaining witnesses and evidence for trials. Typically, a person is served with a subpoena ordering the person to appear or produce evidence. Refusal to obey the subpoena can result in charges of contempt of court.

concurring opinion (kən ker ing ə pin yən) n. A court opinion agreeing with the result in a case, but disagreeing with the reasoning in the court’s opinion. Justices writing concurring opinions explain what they believe the reasoning should be.

contempt of court (kən tempt uv kort) n. Showing disrespect for the court or failing to follow a court order. Punishable by a fine or jail time.

covenant (kuv ə nənt ) n. A written agreement or contract.

crime (krīm) n. An illegal act punishable upon conviction in a court.


defendant (di fen dənt) n. The accused in a criminal trial or the person being sued in a civil case.

defense attorney (di fens ə ter nē) n. In a criminal trial, the attorney for the accused. In a civil trial, the attorney for the person being sued.

desecration (des i krā shən) n. An act of disrespect toward something considered sacred.

discretion (di skresh ən) n. The power to choose.

discretionary jurisdiction (di skresh ə när ē jer əs dik shən) n. The power of some appeals courts, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, to accept or refuse to hear particular appeals. See also writ of certiorari.

dissenting opinion (di sent ing ə pin yən) n. An opinion by a judge who disagrees with the decision in a case. It explains why the judge disagrees and what the outcome should have been.

double jeopardy (dub əl jep er dē) n. Trying a person a second time for a crime that the person has already been acquitted of or been convicted of.

due process (dew pros es) n. In the Fifth and 14th amendments, the basic requirement that no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property without a fair procedures being used. The phrase has also been interpreted to include the fundamental rights “rooted in the tradition and conscience of our people” (Palko v. Connecticut, 1937).


en banc (on bonk) n. The full bench of judges. Each U.S. Appeals Court has from six to 27 judges, but for most cases the judges hear cases in panels of three. When all the judges hear a case together, they hear it en banc.

equal protection (ē kwəl prə tek shən) n. The guarantee that laws will not discriminate against people on the basis of race, religion, skin color, etc. This guarantee is found in the 14th Amendment.

evidence (ev i dəns) n. The means of determining facts in a trial. Testimony, physical objects, and exhibits are examples of evidence.

ex post facto law (eks post faklo) n. A law passed criminalizing an act committed by a person before the law was passed or increasing the penalty for a crime and applying the penalty retroactively. Banned by the U.S. Constitution. (Ex post facto is Latin meaning “from a thing done afterward.”)

exclusionary rule (ik sklew zhən är ē rewl) n. A judicial rule that prevents the government from introducing illegally obtained evidence at a criminal trial.

executive order (ig zek yə tiv or der) n. A rule or principle issued by the president having the force of law. The authority to issue such an order is based on either a federal law or the constitutional power of the president.


felony (fel ə nē) n. A serious crime usually punished by one or more years of imprisonment in a state or federal prison.

forfeiture (for fi cher) n. The confiscation of assets either used in or derived from illegal activity.


grand jury (grand jer ē) n. A group of citizens responsible for determining whether the prosecution has enough evidence against a criminal defendant to justify holding a trial. It meets in secret, and the prosecutor presents evidence to it.


habeas corpus (hā bē əs kor pəs) n. A writ, or court order, for the executive (police, prosecutors, prison officials) to produce a prisoner in court and justify the legality of the imprisonment. (Latin for “you have the body.”)

hearing (hîr ing) n. Any court proceeding, such as a trial.


indict (in dīt) v. To issue an indictment.

indictment (in dīt mənt) n. A grand jury’s formal charge against a defendant confirming that sufficient evidence exists to justify holding a trial.

indigent (in di jənt) 1. adj. Unable to afford a lawyer or pay for the expenses of going to court. 2. n. A person unable to afford a lawyer or pay for the expenses of going to court.

in forma pauperis (in forpo pə rəs) n. A petition used by the indigent to waive court fees. (Latin meaning “in the form of a pauper.”)

injunction (in junk shən) n. A court order telling a party to refrain from doing something or to perform a specific action.

inquisitorial system (in kwiz ə tor ē əl sis təm) n. A system of justice in which the judges play an active role. They may investigate the case and question witnesses. It is different from an adversary system in which the two parties present all the evidence and the judge serves as a referee.

interrogation (in tär ə gā shən) n. Questioning.


Jim Crow laws (jim krō loz) Laws requiring strict racial segregation. The term “Jim Crow” came from a minstrel show song titled “Jump Jim Crow” in the 1800s. The character “Jim Crow” became a standard in minstrel shows.

judicial review (jew dish əl rē ) n. The power of the judiciary to review laws and governmental actions to see whether they conform to the Constitution. If they violate the Constitution, the court has the power to overturn them.

jurisdiction (jer əs dik shən) n. 1. The geographical area over which particular courts have power. 2. The authority to apply the law.

jurisprudence (jer is prew dəns) n. The philosophy of law, or the science that studies the principles of law.

justice of the peace (jus tis uv thə pēs) n. A low-level judge.

justify (just ə fī) v. To prove right, good, just, or valid.


lawyer See attorney.

libel ( bəl) 1. n. Published material that damages a person’s reputation. 2. v. To publish libelous material.

lower court ( er kort) n. 1. A court whose decision is being reviewed by an appeals court. 2. A trial court. 3. A court of limited jurisdiction.

lynching (linch ing) n. A form of mob violence that punishes an accused person without a legal trial. The word comes from the American Revolution and a Colonel Charles Lynch of Virginia, who urged crowds to beat and frighten Tories, supporters of Britain.


magistrate (maj i strāt) n. A court officer who issues warrants; normally a lower-court judge

who handles pretrial proceedings or presides over misdemeanor trials.

majority opinion (mə jor i tē ə pin yən) n. An opinion that a majority of the members of the court agree with.

marshal (mar shəl) n. A law-enforcement officer who normally performs duties connected with a court.

Miranda warning (mə ranwor ning) n. A advisory statement about the rights of suspects that police must read to suspects in custody before questioning them. The Supreme Court first required this statement in its Miranda v. Arizona decision in 1966.

misdemeanor (mis də nər) n. A crime less serious than a felony, usually punished by a fine or imprisonment up to one year in a local jail.

motion ( shən) n. A formal request made to a court.

motion to suppress ( shən tew pres) n. A request that the court exclude particular evidence from the trial because it was illegally obtained.

motive ( təv) n. The reason a person does something.


oral argument (or əl ar gyə mənt) n. The oral presentation to an appellate court, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, of arguments from both sides in the case. Neither side typically gets to talk without being interrupted by questions from members of the court. The attorneys must be able to think quickly and respond to the questions.

original jurisdiction rij ə nəl jer əs dik shən) n. The authority of a court to be the first to hear a case. It is unlike appellate jurisdiction, which authorizes a court to review cases tried by another court.

overrule (ō vər rewl) v. An action by an appellate court, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, to overturn a previous ruling of the court. The overruled case can no longer serve as a precedent.


pardon (par dən) 1. n. An official act that forgives all or part of a prisoner’s sentence. 2. v. To grant a pardon.

patent law (pa tənt lo) n. The law regarding the protection given to the owners of new inventions. A branch of intellectual property law.

penal ( nəl) adj. Subject to punishment. A penal code is a list of laws defining crimes.

penitentiary (pen i ten shə rē) n. 1. A prison. 2. A state or federal maximum-security prison.

per curiam (per kyer ē em) n. An unsigned opinion of the court. (Latin meaning “by the court.”)

perjure (per jər) v. To lie under oath; to give false, misleading testimony when one has sworn to tell the truth.

perjury (per jər ē) n. The crime of lying under oath; giving false, misleading testimony when one has sworn to tell the truth.

petition (pə tish ən) n. A written request that a court hear an appeal.                        

petitioner (pə tish ən er) n. The party appealing the case to a higher court. Also known as the appellant.

plaintiff (plān təf) n. The party suing the defendant in a lawsuit.

plead (plēd) v. 1. To respond to criminal charges, for example, by answering guilty or not guilty in court. 2. To make or answer formal written allegations to a court.

pleading (plēd ing) n. The formal statement, usually written, spelling out the plaintiff’s or defendant’s case to the court.

plurality opinion (plə ral i tē ə pin yən) n. An opinion of the court that a majority agrees with the result of the case, but a majority of justices do not agree with the reasoning. For example, in the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court case of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, a majority of five justices agreed that the school district’s integration plan was unconstitutional, but only four justices joined the opinion of the court. One other justice (Kennedy) concurred with the result, but not with the reasoning of the court’s opinion. Thus the opinion of the court was a plurality, rather than a majority, opinion. Debate arises over whether a plurality opinion can be used as a precedent.

precedent (pres i dənt) n. An issue of law previously decided by a court that other courts must follow.

probable cause (prob ə bəl koz ) n. Evidence that an independent, cautious person would have good reason to believe. The level of proof required for a search warrant.

probate (prō bāt) 1. adj. Concerning wills, trusts, and inheritance. 2. n. The legal process of settling the estate of a person who died either leaving a will or without a will or living trust.

prosecute (pros ə kūt) v. To try someone for a crime.

prosecution (pros ə shən) n. The government’s side in a criminal case.

prosecutor (pros ə kū ter) n. The government’s attorney who presents the case against a criminal defendant.

public defender (pub lək də fend er) n. An attorney working for a government agency (the public defender’s office) that defends criminal suspects who cannot afford their own attorney.

public policy (pub lək pol ə sē) n. A principle, plan, or course of action that a government adopts to address social, economic, or other problems.


quash (kwash) v. To overturn or set aside (done by a court).


relevant (rel ə vənt) adj. Pertinent, appropriate, related to the subject at hand. 

remand (rə mand) v. To send a case back to a lower court.

respondent (rə spon dənt) n. The party responding to the appeal. The other party is making the appeal to a higher court. The respondent’s name goes last in the title of the case. Thus, in Brown v. Board of Education, Brown was the appellant and the Board of Education was the respondent.

reverse (rə vers) v. To overturn the decision of a lower court.


search (serch) v. In Katz v. U.S. (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court defined a search as any governmental intrusion into something in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

search warrant (serch wor ənt) n. An order by a judge authorizing the police to conduct a search.

seizure (zher) n. Any taking into possession, custody, or control. Property may be seized, but so may people. An arrest is one form of seizure.

self-incrimination (self in crim ə na shən) n. A confession or statements that implicate the person making them in a crime.

sentence (sen təns) n. The punishment for a crime.

separation of powers (sep ə shən uv pou ers) n. The division of powers in the U.S. government between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

sheriff (sher əf) n. A county law-enforcement officer.

sovereignty (sov ər ən tē) n. The authority of an independent state.

special prosecutor (spesh əl pros ə kū ter)A lawyer appointed to serve as a prosecutor when there is an apparent conflict of interest between the prosecutor’s office and the person under investigation. The special prosecutor is normally a lawyer outside of government.

stare decisis (stär ē di səs) n. The doctrine that courts should follow precedents and its own past decisions. Under this principle, the Supreme Court should not overturn its own decisions unless it has a strong reason to do so. (Latin meaning “stand by past decisions.”)

statute (stach ewt) n. A written law; a law enacted by the legislature.

statutory law See statute.

subpoena (sə nə) n. An order to appear in court to testify. (Latin for “under penalty.”)


testify (tes tə fī) v. To make statements as a witness under oath.

testimony (test ə mō nē) n. Statements made by witnesses under oath.

tort (tort) n. A wrongful act (other than breach of contract) that serves as the basis for a lawsuit. The wrongful act usually must be done intentionally or negligently.

tribunal (trī nəl) n. A court of justice.


vacate ( kāt) v. To annul; to make void.

venue (ven ū) n. The location of a trial.

verdict (ver dikt) n. In criminal cases, the decision of guilty or not guilty made by the jury or judge. In civil cases, the decision of whether the defendant is liable for damages.


warrant (wor ənt) n. A court order issued by a judge authorizing police to conduct a search, make an arrest, or a seize evidence of a crime.

writ (rit) n. A written court order.

writ of certiorari (rit uv ser shē ə rär ē) n. An order from an appeals court, such as the U.S. Supreme Court, stating that the court will hear a case. These writs are granted by appeals courts that have discretionary jurisdiction. 

writ of mandamus (rit uv man məs) n. A court order telling a government official to take a particular action. (Mandamus is Latin for “we command.”)

Pronunciation Key: bat, āte, are, däre, den, ēgo, new, her, bit, īce, îrritate, box, nō, born, oil, book, out, but, ūse, chum, sing, she, thin, the, zh sound in treasure or mirage; ə is the uh sound in unaccented syllables.

Other Legal Dictionaries