Last updated on: 8/24/2009 | Author:



Ad Valorem

Latin for “based on value,” which applies to property taxes based on a percentage of the county’s assessment of the property’s value.
Law Dictionary,

Amicus Curiae Latin for “friend of the court,” a party or an organization interested in an issue which files a brief or participates in the argument in a case in which that party or organization is not one of the litigants. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union often files briefs on behalf of a party who contends his constitutional rights have been violated, even though the claimant has his own attorney. Usually the court must give permission for the brief to be filed and arguments may only be made with the agreement of the party the amicus curiae is supporting, and that argument comes out of the time allowed for that party’s presentation to the court.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

The party who appeals a trial court decision he/she/it has lost.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

In some jurisdictions the name used for the party who has won at the trial court level, but the loser (appellant) has appealed the decision to a higher court. Thus the appellee has to file a response to the legal brief filed by the appellant. In many jurisdictions the appellee is called the “respondent.”
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Latin meaning “for the sake of argument” used by lawyers in the context of “assuming arguendo” that the facts were as the other party contends, but the law prevents the other side from prevailing. Example: “assuming arguendo” that the court finds our client, the defendant, was negligent, the other party (plaintiff) was so contributorily negligent he cannot recover damages. In short, the lawyer is not admitting anything, but wants to make a legal argument only. The word appears most commonly in appeals briefs.

Bill of Attainder A legislative act pronouncing a person guilty of a crime (usually in cases of suspected treason), and punishing them without the benefit of a trial. The Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 9, prohibits such acts.
US Legal Definitions,

A writ (order) of a higher court to a lower court to send all the documents in a case to it so the higher court can review the lower court’s decision. Certiorari is most commonly used by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is selective about which cases it will hear on appeal. To appeal to the Supreme Court one applies to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, which it grants at its discretion and only when at least three members believe that the case involves a sufficiently significant federal question in the public interest. By denying such a writ the Supreme Court says it will let the lower court decision stand, particularly if it conforms to accepted precedents (previously decided cases).
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Civil Liberties
The Bill of Rights [first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States] establishes basic American civil liberties that the government cannot violate [such as freedom of expression, association, religion, right to a fair trial, to an attorney etc.]… The Bill of Rights includes a wide range of protections with a common theme and purpose to define the scope of individual freedom in the United States and to make the political system more democratic.

Civil Rights
Those rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, including the right to due process, equal treatment under the law of all people regarding enjoyment of life, liberty, property, and protection. Positive civil rights include the right to vote, the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a democratic society, such as equal access to public schools, recreation, transportation, public facilities, and housing and equal and fair treatment by law enforcement and the courts.

Collateral Estoppel

A legal doctrine that says that a judgment in one case prevents (estops) a party to that suit from trying to litigate the same issue in another legal action. Also called issue preclusion.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

Concurring Opinion
An opinion separate from that which embodies the view and decision of the majority prepared and filed by a judge who agrees with the general result of the decision and which either reinforces the majority opinion or voices disapproval with the reasoning behind the opinion but approves of its final result.
Black’s Law Dictionary, Revised 4th ed., 1968

Concurring / Dissenting Opinion
An opinion separate from that which embodies the views and decision of the majority, prepared and filed by a judge who agrees with a portion of the decision of the majority. (Most often occurring in cases involving more than one count.)
Found by calling the US Supreme Court

Consicence Clause
A statutory provision that permits individuals or institutions to refuse to provide or to pay for medical procedures on the basis of religious or moral beliefs.

A person who rejects the theory of evolution and believes instead that the each species on earth was put here by a Divine Being. A Creationist might accept “micro-evolution” (changes in the form of a species over time based on natural selection), but rejects the notion that one species can– over time– become another species.
University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School,

Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Punishment that is extremely excessive in relation to the crime, shocking to ordinary sensibilities, or equivalent to torture. It is prohibited, but not defined, by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. The definition of cruel and unusual punishment changes over the years, as the courts respond to “evolving standards of decency.” The US Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty, if it could be meted out by juries with wide discretion and little guidance or applied to insane or mentally retarded defendants, is cruel and unusual punishment. There is still much debate about whether certain methods of carrying out the death penalty, including lethal injection, violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

Declaratory Judgment
A judgment of a court which determines the rights of parties without ordering anything be done or awarding damages… allow[s] to nip controversies in the bud.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

De Facto
Latin for “in fact.” A recognition of authority even when legal or formal requirements have not been met.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,
A pleading filed by the defendant that the complaint as filed is not sufficient to require an answer.
United States Courts District of Idaho Legal Glossary,

De Novo
Considering the matter anew, the same as if it had not been heard before and as if no decision previously had been rendered. When a judgment upon an issue in part is reversed on error, for some mistake made by the court, in the course of the trial, a venire de novo is awarded in order that the case may again be submitted to the jury.
‘Lectric Law Library’s Lexicon,

Directed Verdict

A ruling by a judge, typically made after the plaintiff has presented all of its evidence but before the defendant puts on its case, that awards judgment to the defendant. A directed verdict is usually made because the judge concludes the plaintiff has failed to offer the minimum amount of evidence to prove the case even if there were no opposition. In other words, the judge is saying that, as a matter of law, no reasonable jury could decide in the plaintiff’s favor. In a criminal case, a directed verdict is a judgment of acquittal for the defendant.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,
Dissenting Opinion
An opinion separate from that which embodies the views and decision of the majority, prepared and filed by a judge who disagrees with the decision of the Court and who expresses his own views/reasoning on the case.
Black’s Law Dictionary, Revised 4th ed., 1968

Double Jeopardy
Putting a person on trial more than once for the same crime. It is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
United States Courts District of Idaho Legal Glossary,

Due Process In criminal law, the constitutional guarantee that a defendant will receive a fair and impartial trial. In civil law, the legal rights of someone who confronts an adverse action threatening liberty or property.
US Courts – Journalist Guide to the Federal Courts Glossary,

En Banc
A French term meaning “on the bench.” It is used to refer to legal sessions in which the entire membership of the judges of a particular court participate in a proceeding, rather than smaller panels of judges. US courts of appeals typically sit in panels of three judges, however may increase to its full membership when sitting En Banc.

From old French eschete, which meant “that which falls to one,” the forfeit of all property (including bank accounts) to the state treasury if it appears certain that there are no heirs, descendants or named beneficiaries to take the property upon the death of the last known owner.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Establishment Clause
The first half of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, it reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
“At an absolute minimum, the Establishment Clause was intended to prohibit the federal government from declaring and financially supporting a national religion, such as existed in many other countries at the time of the nation’s founding. It is far less clear whether the Establishment Clause was also intended to prevent the federal government from supporting Christianity in general. Proponents of a narrow interpretation of the clause point out that the same First Congress that proposed the Bill of Rights also opened its legislative day with prayer and voted to apportion federal dollars to establish Christian missions in the Indian lands. On the other hand, persons seeing a far broader meaning in the clause point to writings by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison suggesting the need to establish ‘a wall of separation’ between church and state.”
Exploring Constitutional Law by Doug Linder (2006),

Et ux.
Abbreviation for the Latin words et uxor meaning “and wife.” It is usually found in deeds, tax assessment rolls and other documents in the form “John Alden et ux.,” to show that the wife as well as the husband own property.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

An evolutionist accepts the Darwinian argument that natural selection and environmental factors combine to explain the diversity of life we see on earth. An evolutionist may or may not believe that evolution is the way in which a Divine Being has chosen to work in the world. Evolutionists divide into various camps, including punctualists (who believe that evolution usually occurs sporadically, in relatively short bursts, as the result of major environmental change) and gradualists (who are more inclined to believe that evolution occurs more evenly, over longer periods of time).
University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School,

Exculpatory Describes evidence which tends to justify or exonerate an accused person’s actions and tends to show that they had a lack of criminal intent. It is the opposite of inculpatory evidence, which tends to incriminate or prove guilt. The government has a limited duty under the Due Process Clause to disclose exculpatory information to a criminal defendant. However, that duty arises only when disclosure is necessary to ensure a fair trial.
US Legal Definitions,
Ex Post Facto Latin for “from a thing done afterward.” Ex post facto is most typically used to refer to a criminal law that applies retroactively, thereby criminalizing conduct that was legal when originally performed. Two clauses in the US Constitution prohibit ex post facto laws: Article 1, Section 9 and Article 1, Section 10.
Cornell University Law School,

Ex rel.
Abbreviation for Latin ex relatione, meaning “upon being related” or “upon information,” used in the title of a legal proceeding filed by a state Attorney General (or the federal Department of Justice) on behalf of the government, on the instigation of a private person, who needs the state to enforce the rights of himself/herself and the public. For example, the caption would read: The State of Tennessee ex rel. Archie Johnson v. Hardy Products.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Fair Use

A copyright principle that excuses unauthorized uses of a work when used for a transformative purpose such as research, scholarship, parody, criticism, or journalism. When determining whether an infringement should be excused on the basis of fair use, a court will use several factors including the purpose and character of the use, amount and substantiality of the portion borrowed, and effect of the use on the market for the copyrighted material. Fair use is a defense rather than an affirmative right – that is, a particular use only gets established as a fair use if the copyright owner decides to file a lawsuit and the court upholds the fair use defense.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

Free Exercise Clause
The second half of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, it reads: “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise (of religion).”
“The free-exercise clause pertains to the right to freely exercise one’s religion. It states that the government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.”

Habeas Corpus
Latin for “you have the body,” it is a writ (court order) which directs the law enforcement officials (prison administrators, police or sheriff) who have custody of a prisoner to appear in court with the prisoner to help the judge determine whether the prisoner is lawfully in prison or jail. The writ is obtained by petition to a judge in the county or district where the prisoner is incarcerated, and the judge sets a hearing on whether there is a legal basis for holding the prisoner. Habeas corpus is a protection against illegal confinement, such as holding a person without charges, when due process obviously has been denied, bail is excessive, parole has been granted, an accused has been improperly surrendered by the bail bondsman or probation has been summarily terminated without cause.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

In absentia
Latin for “in absence,” or more fully, in one’s absence.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

In camera
Latin for “in chambers.” …Hearing or discussions with the judge in the privacy of his chambers (office rooms) or when spectators and jurors have been excluded from the courtroom.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law< by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

In forma pauperis
Latin for ‘in the form of a pauper.’ Someone who is without the funds to pursue the normal costs of a lawsuit or criminal defense. Upon the court’s granting of this status the person is entitled to waiver of normal costs and/or appointment of counsel (but seldom in other than a criminal case).
It can also refer to a petition filed by a poor person in order to proceed in court without having to pay court costs such as filing fees. In most civil cases it does not cover other cost such as those involved in discovery (depositions, witness fees, court reporters, etc.) and service of process, except in rare cases. Also, barring exceptional circumstances such as some civil rights suits, it does not cover attorney appointments.
‘Lectric Law Library’s Lexicon,

Injunctive relief A court-ordered act or prohibition against an act that has been requested in a petition to the court for an injunction. Usually injunctive relief is granted only after a hearing at which both sides have an opportunity to present testimony and legal arguments.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

Intelligent Design
The assertion or belief that physical and biological systems observed in the universe result from purposeful design by an intelligent being rather than from chance or undirected natural processes.
American Heritage Dictionary (2000)

Inter alia
This phrase is often found in legal pleadings and writings to specify one example out of many possibilities. Example: “The judge said, inter alia, that the time to file the action had passed.”
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),


A legal term referring to a judgment given during an intermediate stage of a hearing, used to provide a temporary decision on a particular issue of the case before the final verdict has been made.

Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict

Reversal of a jury’s verdict by a judge when the judge believes that there were insufficient facts on which to base the jury’s verdict, or that the verdict did not correctly apply the law. This procedure is similar to a situation in which a judge orders a jury to arrive at a particular verdict, called a directed verdict.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

Jury Charge

The judge’s instructions to the jurors on the law that applies in a case and definitions of the relevant legal concepts. These instructions may be complex and are often pivotal in a jury’s discussions.
‘Lectric Law Library’s Lexicon,

Latin for “we order,” a writ (more modernly called a “writ of mandate”) which orders a public agency or governmental body to perform an act required by law when it has neglected or refused to do so. Examples: After petitions were filed with sufficient valid signatures to qualify a proposition for the ballot, the city refuses to call the election, claiming it has a legal opinion that the proposal is unconstitutional. The backers of the proposition file a petition for a writ ordering the city to hold the election. The court will order a hearing on the writ and afterwards either issue the writ or deny the petition. Or a state agency refuses to release public information, a school district charges fees to a student in violation of state law, or a judge will not permit reporters entry at a public trial. All of these can be subject of petitions for a writ of mandamus.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Nisi Prius Latin for “unless first,” referring to the original trial court which heard a case as distinguished from a court of appeals. “Court of original jurisdiction” is often substituted for the term nisi prius.
Law Dictionary,
The statement by the Court of the decision reached in regard to the case, setting forth the law as applied to the case and detailing the reasoning upon which the decision is based.
Black’s Law Dictionary, Revised 4th ed., 1968

Per Curiam
Latin for “by the court,” defining a decision of an appeals court as a whole in which no judge is identified as the specific author.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Peremptory Challenge
The right of the plaintiff and the defendant in a jury trial to have a juror dismissed before trial without stating a reason…. The number of peremptory challenges for each side will differ based on state law, the number of parties to a case, and whether it is a civil or criminal trial.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

One who signs and/or files a petition.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),


Preemption is the rule of law that if the federal government through Congress has enacted legislation on a subject matter it shall be controlling over state laws and/or preclude the state from enacting laws on the same subject if Congress has specifically declared it has “occupied the field.”

Preemption can occur by Congress passing a law, preempting state or local law. If Congress has not clearly claimed preemption, a federal or state court may examine legislative history to determine the lawmakers’ intent toward preemption.
US Legal Definitions,
Preliminary Injunction A preliminary injunction is a court order made in the early stages of a lawsuit or petition which prohibits the parties from doing an act in order to preserve the status quo until a pending ruling or outcome. In order to obtain a preliminary injunction, a plaintiff must demonstrate both (1) that it will suffer irreparable harm if the motion is not granted and (2) either (a) a likelihood that it will succeed on the merits of the action or (b) a sufficiently serious question going to the merits at the litigation and the balance of hardships tipping decidedly in plaintiff’s favor.
US Legal Definitions,
Prima Facie
Latin for “at first look,” or “on its face,” referring to a lawsuit or criminal prosecution in which the evidence before trial is sufficient to prove the case unless there is substantial contradictory evidence presented at trial. A prima facie case presented to a Grand Jury by the prosecution will result in an indictment. Example: in a charge of bad check writing, evidence of a half dozen checks written on a non-existent bank account makes it a prima facie case. However, proof that the bank had misprinted the account number on the checks might disprove the prosecution’s apparent “open and shut” case.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Pro Se “Pro Se” is Latin for “For Self” or in one’s own behalf. You appear “Pro Se” in a legal action when you represent yourself directly in a legal action (in or out of court) and do not have an attorney speaking or writing for you.
US Legal Definitions,

Certain illegal activities, such as bribery, money laundering, prostitution, or extortion, committed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

1) The party who is required to answer a petition for a court order or writ requiring the respondent to take some action, halt an activity or obey a court’s direction. In such matters the moving party (the one filing the petition) is usually called the “petitioner.” Thus, the respondent is equivalent to a defendant in a lawsuit, but the potential result is a court order and not money damages. 2) On an appeal, the party who must respond to an appeal by the losing party in the trial court (called “appellant”) in the appeals court.
The Real Life Dictionary of the Law by Gerald and Kathleen Hill, General Publishing Group (1997),

Sedition The federal crime of advocating insurrection against the government through speeches and publications. Sedition charges are rare because freedom of speech, press, and assembly are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and because treason or espionage charges can be made for overt acts against the nation’s security.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

Stare decisis
A basic principle of the law whereby once a decision (a precedent) on a certain set of facts has been made, the courts will apply that decision in cases which subsequently come before it embodying the same set of facts. A precedent which is binding; must be followed.
Duhaime’s Online Law Dictionary,

Sua sponte
Latin for “of one’s own accord,” most commonly used to describe a decision by a judge that neither party to a lawsuit has requested.
Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary,

Summary Judgment

A court rendered determination made without a full trial. Such a judgment is generally made when there is no dispute over the factual issues of the case, and one party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.

Latin for “above;” it is an academic and legal term used as a citation signal when a writer desires to refer a reader to something he or she previously cited.

A writ summoning persons to court to act as jurors. Also refers to the people summoned for jury duty.
Delaware State Courts,

Voir Dire
Process of questioning potential jurors so that each side may decide whether to accept or oppose individuals for jury service.
Delaware State Courts,

A judicial order. A formal written command, issued from the court, requiring the performance of a specific act. A mandatory precept issued by the authority, and in the name of the sovereign or the state, for the purpose of compelling the defendant to do something therein mentioned.
‘Lectric Law Library’s Lexicon,