Legal Glossary

Legal Glossary

Action- A general term that may refer to any number of legal options available to a client.  For example, “We will consider taking legal action in this matter.”

Adjudication- The decision or resolution of a legal controversy by one with authority to do so.

Affidavit- A declaration of facts confirmed—usually under oath— by the party providing the information. The declaration is typically made before a witness such as a notary.
Affirmed- When a previous decision, or a decision from a lower court, is upheld.

Amicus Brief- Short for the Latin phrase Amicus Curiae, meaning “friend of the court.”  A brief submitted to a court by a non-party, usually on behalf of a third party with an interest in the outcome of the case.  The amicus brief is intended to bring the interests of the third party to the court’s attention and assist it in deciding the case.

Allegation- A claim or assertion, typically made against a person.  Also, what a party intends to prove.

Alternative Dispute Resolution- When a dispute is settled outside of court. Instead of going to trial, a dispute can be settled by mediation, conciliation, arbitration, or settlement.

Answer- A defendant’s response to the plaintiff’s allegations.

Appeal- When a party seeks to have a higher court review the decision of a lower court.

Appellant- The person or party seeking an appeal.
Appellee- The person or party against whom the appeal is made.
Appellate- Generally refers to those matters pertaining to appeals and proceedings for judicial review (e.g., appellate court, appellate procedure, appellate judge, etc.).
Arbitration- When both parties in a dispute bring their case, out of court, to a neutral third party as a form of alternate dispute resolution. Both parties present their cases to the third party, who seeks to resolve the dispute. in a hearing.

Attorney-Client Privilege- The protected status granted to communications between a client and their attorney(s).   Attorneys have a legal and ethical obligation to protect (not disclose) information that clients communicate to them “in confidence.”  The client, however, does not have any obligation to protect the disclosed information.  But if the client discloses the information to a third party, the privilege is typically lost.

Bench trial- A trial in which a judge decides a case without a jury.

Burden of Proof- The threshold that a party must overcome in order to prevail on a particular issue or case.  There may be multiple burdens of proof within any given case.  For example, the criminal burden of proof to establish guilt is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  In most civil cases, the burden of proof is “a preponderance of the evidence.”

Case law- Legal principles and precedent collected from an aggregation of court decisions over time.

Cause of action- The facts necessary to form the basis for a lawsuit.

Change of venue- Changing the physical location of a trial.

Class action- A group of persons representing a common cause of action brought together to form a group to participate as representatives in a legal proceeding.

Complaint- The first pleading a plaintiff makes in a case; states the facts of the case and remedy sought.

Counsel- A formal term referring to a lawyer or legal adviser.

Counterclaim- To respond to an allegation with one’s own allegation.

Damages- A form of remedy that may be imposed by a judge.  May be actual damages (compensation for loss), nominal damages (legal recognition of a wrong although no actual loss was suffered), or punitive damages (punishment for the wrong).

Decision- Judgment reached by the court or judge. The ruling in the case.

Declaratory Judgment- A judgment in which the court “declares” or announces their opinion, including the rights of both parties. No further action may be required.

Declaratory Relief – When a judge makes a declaratory judgment without awarding damages.

Decree- Court’s order.

Defamation- Damaging a person’s reputation.  May be written (libel) or verbal (slander).

Defendant- The party the plaintiff—the person filing the suit—is bringing charges against.

Deposition- A witnesses’ sworn, out-of-court testimony, to be used later in the trial.  Typically occurs during the discovery phase of a lawsuit.

Discovery-  That phase of a legal proceeding when parties exchange the necessary information and documents relevant to a particular case.

Dissent- In a judicial decision, the disagreement expressed by the judge(s) who form the minority.

District Court- The initial courts to hear cases within our federal judicial system.

Docket- A term referring to either the list of cases to be heard by a court, or the list of motions, responses, and briefs in a specific case.

Enjoin- When a court orders a party to stop or start performing a specified action.

En Banc- Latin phrase meaning “in the bench.”  A relatively rare occurrence whereby an appellate court, in its entirety, decides a case.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)- The federal agency responsible for investigating and enforcing civil rights, within the workplace.

Equal Protection Clause- A clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting states from denying any person the equal protection of the laws.  Although the text of the Clause only refers to “states,” it is generally understood to apply to the federal government as well.

Exhibit- Evidence used in a trial or hearing.

File- To officially place a document in a court administrator’s custody so that it may be a apart of a case record.

Forum Non Conveniens- Latin phrase meaning “the forum does not agree.”  When a judge declines to exercise jurisdiction over a case because a more convenient court can hear the case.  The plaintiff has the opportunity to file her case again in the new court.

Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution- Passed after the Civil War, this amendment guarantees citizenship to natural born citizens, the protection of citizen’s rights, and the due process.  In modern times, it is most often used to apply the Bill of Rights to the states.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)- Federal Law that requires government agencies to release information upon the public’s request. The government can refuse to release information if they believe keeping requested information secret would threaten national security, a person’s right to privacy, or the internal management of the agency.

Grand Jury-  A pre-trial jury of 23 citizens that decides if a person goes to trial.

Hearsay- An out of court statement offered for the truth of the matter asserted.  Hearsay evidence is generally inadmissible, but there are many exceptions.

HHS Mandate- The section of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers of 50 employees or more to cover contraceptive services in the employee’s health care plan.

Immunity- When a person or entity may not be punished under the law.

Qualified Immunity- A non-criminal doctrine whereby government officials are shielded from liability for violating an individual’s federal constitutional rights.

Testimonial Immunity- A limited form of immunity whereby, in exchange for an agreement to testify on behalf of the government, the government agrees not to use that testimony against the witness.  Usually limited to criminal cases.  

Transactional Immunity- A broader form of immunity than Testimonial Immunity whereby, in exchange for an agreement to testify on behalf of the government, the government agrees not to prosecute the witness for the bad acts relating to the testimony.

In Forma Pauperis- Latin phrase meaning “in the manner or character of a pauper.”  When a person receives a waiver for the cost of a lawsuit or criminal defense because of their poor financial standing.

Injunction- When the court orders a party to perform or cease a particular action.Temporary Injunction- An injunction that is effective until there is further direction from the court.

Preliminary Injunction- Similar to a Temporary Injunction, an injunction that usually occurs prior to a final determination of the case.  Plaintiffs will typically seek a Preliminary Injunction when they will suffer irreparable harm if the defendant is not ordered to cease the allegedly harmful conduct.

Permanent Injunction- A final court order that usually occurs after a final determination of the case.

Intervene- When a court permits a third party who is affected by a lawsuit to participate in the lawsuit.

Judicial review- The process by which a higher court reviews the decision, proceeding, or judgment made by a lower court.

Jurisdiction- A court’s legal authority to preside over a particular legal issue.

Liable- Legally responsible.

Litigant- Person involved in a lawsuit.

Moot- Generally refers to those issues that a court will not consider or rule upon.  An issue may be for any number of reasons.
Motion- Oral or written application made by the parties involved in a trial seeking ar particular action or relief from the court.

Next friend- A substitute or proxy for a person who is not able to appear in court.

Oath- Pledge to tell the truth. May be oral or written.

Oral argument- Proceeding during which the attorneys for each party argue their positions on a particular matter in court.  If the oral argument is at the trial level, the trial judge will preside.  If the oral argument is at the appellate level, there may be a panel of judges, or the entire court may hear the argument en banc.

Order- When the court directs a party to perform or cease a specific action.

Plaintiff- The party bringing the lawsuit.

Pleading(s)- The in-court documents that are filed with a court.  May refer to motions, complaints, briefs, etc. 

Precedent- A court decision that may—or sometimes must—be used in subsequent cases of similar nature.Binding precedent- Those prior court decisions that a court is required to follow and apply on a particular matter.

Non-binding precedent- Those prior court decisions that a court may, but is not required, to consider when deciding a particular matter.

Pre-litigation- Those actions or issues that occur prior to the commencement of litigation (i.e., the filing of the Complaint).

Pre-trial Conference- A meeting that occurs after litigation is commenced, but before the trial begins, wherein the parties and the judge discuss a particular issue(s) in the lawsuit, as directed by the judge.

Pro bono- Latin term meaning “for the public good.”  Refers to legal services that are provided free of charge.  Liberty Institute is a pro bono law firm.

Redact- To edit a document by marking out certain words or text. Usually done by marking out the text with a bold, black line.

Remand- When a higher appellate court sends a case to a lower court for further disposition.  Remand may be to a lower appellate court, or to the original trial court.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)- Federal law that protects the American people from any federal action that substantially burdens the free exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs. RFRA was enacted in 1993.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) – Federal law that prohibits the imposition of burdens on the ability of prisoners to engage in religious worship, and protects religious institutions from land use laws and regulations that substantially burden the use of their property.  RLUIPA was enacted in 2000.

Remedy- The consequence(s) that affect the parties following a court’s decision in a case. May take various forms (e.g., monetary, declaratory, injunctive, punitive, etc.).

Restitution- Compensation for loss, damage, or injury.

Settlement- Ending a lawsuit with a legally-enforceable agreement between the parties.

Standing- Doctrine referring to the status of having a legal right to sue.

Stare Decisis- Latin phrase meaning “to stand by a thing decided.”  Doctrine whereby a court decides a case based on laws and principles of previous court decisions.

Stay- The judicial act of halting the trial process.  May take various forms (e.g., Stay of Proceedings, Stay of Execution, Stay of Removal, etc.).  

Statutory- Of or relating to codified laws.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction- The court’s legal authority to hear a case or render a decision because the issue is one upon which the court is competent to rule.

Summary Judgment- A ruling by a court whereby it decides a case without a full trial by applying the law to a set of undisputed facts.

Temporary Restraining Order- A court’s non-permanent directive to cease or discontinue an act until further direction from the court.  Must be limited in duration.

Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA)- The Texas version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Act states that the Texas government cannot enact any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion. The government must have a compelling interest in order to inhibit a person’s religious expression. The Texas legislature passed TRFRA in 1999.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964- Federal law that bans discrimination based on race, nationality, sex, color, or religion. Applies to public employers and private employers with fifteen or more employees.

Tort- A wrongful act and/or injury. The injury is usually to a person, property, or reputation. Compensation is usually awarded to the injured party.  Tort actions are adjudicated by civil (non-criminal) courts.

Vacate- To set aside, or cancel, a judgment.

Verdict- The final conclusion in a case that is used as the basis for the court’s judgment.

Writ of Certiorari- Granted when the United States Supreme Court agrees to hear a case.

501(C) 3- The section of the Internal Revenue Service Code referring to an organization or entity that receives federal tax exempt status because it is operated exclusively for the purposes of religion, charity, public safety, literacy, helping children or animals, or education.


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