Glossary of Legal Terms
Acquittal: A jury verdict that a criminal defendant is not guilty, or the finding of a judge that the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction.
Active judge: A judge in the full-time service of the court. Compare to senior judge.
Admissible: A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases.
Affidavit: A written or printed statement made under oath.
Affirmed: In the practice of the court of appeals, it means that the court of appeals has concluded that the lower court decision is correct and will stand as rendered by the lower court.
Alternate juror: A juror selected in the same manner as a regular juror who hears all the evidence but does not help decide the case unless called on to replace a regular juror.
Alternative dispute resolution (ADR): A procedure for settling a dispute outside the courtroom.
Amicus curiae: Latin for "friend of the court." It is advice formally offered to the court in a brief filed by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case.
Answer: The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint, articulating the grounds for defense.
Appeal: A request made after a trial by a party that has lost on one or more issues that a higher court review the 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."
Appellant: The party who appeals a district court's decision, usually seeking reversal of that decision.
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.
Appellee: The party who opposes an appellant's appeal, and who seeks to persuade the appeals court to affirm the district court's decision.
Arraignment: A proceeding in which a criminal defendant is brought into court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty.
Assets: Property of all kinds, including real and personal, tangible and intangible.
Assume: An agreement to continue performing duties under a contract or lease.
Automatic stay: An injunction that automatically stops lawsuits, foreclosures, garnishments, and most collection activities against the debtor the moment a bankruptcy petition is filed.
Bail: The release, prior to trial, of a person accused of a crime, under specified conditions designed to assure that person's appearance in court when required. Also can refer to the amount of bond money posted as a financial condition of pretrial release.
Bench trial: A trial without a jury, in which the judge serves as the fact-finder.
Brief: A written statement submitted in a trial or appellate proceeding that explains one side's legal and factual arguments.
Burden of proof: The duty to prove disputed facts. In civil cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt. (See standard of proof.)
Capital offense: A crime punishable by death.
Case file: A complete collection of every document filed in court in a case.
Case law: The law as established in previous court decisions. A synonym for legal precedent. Akin to common law, which springs from tradition and judicial decisions.
Caseload: The number of cases handled by a judge or a court.
Cause of action: A legal claim.
Chambers: The offices of a judge and his or her staff.
Chief judge: The chief judge is responsible to the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court for the administration and supervision of the courts, judges, and officers of the courts within the judicial circuit. The chief judge is responsible for developing and implementing a plan for the efficient operation of the courts that provides for the prompt disposition of cases, assignment of judges and staff, control of dockets, regulation and use of courtrooms and review of the status of inmates in local jails.
Claim: A creditor's assertion of a right to payment from a debtor or the debtor's property.
Clerk of court: The court officer who oversees administrative functions, especially managing the flow of cases through the court. The clerk's office is often called a court's central nervous system.
Collateral: Property that is promised as security for the satisfaction of a debt.
Common law: The legal system that originated in England and is now in use in the United States, which relies on the articulation of legal principles in a historical succession of judicial decisions. Common law principles can be changed by legislation.
Community service: A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to work - without pay - for a civic or nonprofit organization.
Complaint: A written statement that begins a civil lawsuit, in which the plaintiff details the claims against the defendant.
Concurrent sentence: Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served at the same time, rather than one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served concurrently, result in a maximum of five years behind bars.
Consecutive sentence: Prison terms for two or more offenses to be served one after the other. Example: Two five-year sentences and one three-year sentence, if served consecutively, result in a maximum of 13 years behind bars.
Contract: An agreement between two or more people that creates an obligation to do or not to do a particular thing.
Conviction: A judgment of guilt against a criminal defendant.
Counsel: Legal advice; a term also used to refer to the lawyers in a case.
Court: Government entity authorized to resolve legal disputes. Judges sometimes use "court" to refer to themselves in the third person, as in "the court has read the briefs."
Court Administration: The Court Administrator's Office handles judicial support functions for the circuit under the direction of the chief judge. This office oversees program functions set up by the judiciary. Grant Slayden, the Trial Court Administrator, assists the chief judge with the creation of the budget, policy, and acts as liaison to local, county and state committees. Mr. Slayden reviews all personnel matters to ensure staff is in place to support the judiciary including but not limited to: budget and finance, trial and courtroom coordination, court interpreters, court technology, cost containment, space planning, maintenance and capital improvements, court reporting services, human resources, research & data, case management, certification and management of civil process servers, and staffing committees.
Court reporter: A person who makes a word-for-word record of what is said in court, generally by using a stenographic machine, shorthand or audio recording, and then produces a transcript of the proceedings upon request.
Count: An allegation in an indictment or information, charging a defendant with a crime. An indictment or information may contain allegations that the defendant committed more than one crime. Each allegation is referred to as a count.
Damages: Money that a defendant pays a plaintiff in a civil case if the plaintiff has won. Damages may be compensatory (for loss or injury) or punitive (to punish and deter future misconduct).
Defendant: An individual (or business) against whom a lawsuit is filed.
Declaratory judgment: A judge's statement about someone's rights. For example, a plaintiff may seek a declaratory judgment that a particular statute, as written, violates some constitutional right.
De facto: Latin, meaning "in fact" or "actually." Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.
Default judgment: A judgment awarding a plaintiff the relief sought in the complaint because the defendant has failed to appear in court or otherwise respond to the complaint.
Defendant: In a civil case, the person or organization against whom the plaintiff brings suit; in a criminal case, the person accused of the crime.
De jure: Latin, meaning "in law." Something that exists by operation of law.
De novo: Latin, meaning "anew." A trial de novo is a completely new trial. Appellate review de novo implies no deference to the trial judge's ruling.
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. See discovery.
Discovery: Procedures used to obtain disclosure of evidence before trial.
Dismissal with prejudice: Court action that prevents an identical lawsuit from being filed later.
Dismissal without prejudice: Court action that allows the later filing.
Docket: A log containing the complete history of each case in the form of brief chronological entries summarizing the court proceedings.
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.
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.
Exclusionary rule: Doctrine that says evidence obtained in violation of a criminal defendant's constitutional or statutory rights is not admissible at trial.
Exculpatory evidence: Evidence indicating that a defendant did not commit the crime.
Ex parte: A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.
Felony: A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.
File: To place a paper in the official custody of the clerk of court to enter into the files or records of a case.
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.
Habeas corpus: Latin, meaning "you have the body." A writ of habeas corpus generally is a judicial order forcing law enforcement authorities to produce a prisoner they are holding, and to justify the prisoner's continued confinement.
Hearsay: Evidence presented by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else. With some exceptions, hearsay generally is not admissible as evidence at trial.
Home confinement: A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to remain at home except for certain approved activities such as work and medical appointments. Home confinement may include the use of electronic monitoring equipment - a transmitter attached to the wrist or the ankle - to help ensure that the person stays at home as required.
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.
In camera: Latin, meaning in a judge's chambers. Often means outside the presence of a jury and the public. In private.
Inculpatory evidence: Evidence indicating that a defendant did commit the crime.
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.
In forma pauperis: "In the manner of a pauper." Permission given by the court to a person to file a case without payment of the required court fees because the person cannot pay them.
Injunction: A court order preventing one or more named parties from taking some action. A preliminary injunction often is issued to allow fact-finding, so a judge can determine whether a permanent injunction is justified.
Interrogatories: A form of discovery consisting of written questions to be answered in writing and under oath.
Issue: 1. The disputed point between parties in a lawsuit; 2. To send out officially, as in a court issuing an order.
Judge: An official of the Judicial branch with authority to decide lawsuits brought before courts. Used generically, the term judge may also refer to all judicial officers, including Supreme Court justices.
Judgeship: The position of judge.
Judgment: The official decision of a court finally resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit.
Jurisdiction: The legal authority of a court to hear and decide a certain type of case. It also is used as a synonym for venue, meaning the geographic area over which the court has territorial jurisdiction to decide cases.
Jurisprudence: The study of law and the structure of the legal system.
Jury: The group of persons selected to hear the evidence in a trial and render a verdict on matters of fact. See also grand jury.
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.
Lawsuit: A legal action started by a plaintiff against a defendant based on a complaint that the defendant failed to perform a legal duty which resulted in harm to the plaintiff.
Lien: A charge on specific property that is designed to secure payment of a debt or performance of an obligation. A debtor may still be responsible for a lien after a discharge.
Litigation: A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.
Magistrate judge: has the authority to hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases, conduct bench trials for certain misdemeanor offenses, including deposit account fraud (bad checks), grant bail (except as to very serious felony charges), and preside over a small claims court for cases where the amount in controversy does not exceed $15,000.
Mental health treatment: Special condition the court imposes to require an individual to undergo evaluation and treatment for a mental disorder. Treatment may include psychiatric, psychological, and sex offense-specific evaluations, inpatient or outpatient counseling, and medication.
Misdemeanor: An offense punishable by one year of imprisonment or less. See also felony.
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.
Moot: Not subject to a court ruling because the controversy has not actually arisen, or has ended.
Motion: A request by a litigant to a judge for a decision on an issue relating to the case.
Motion in Limine: A pretrial motion requesting the court to prohibit the other side from presenting, or even referring to, evidence on matters said to be so highly prejudicial that no steps taken by the judge can prevent the jury from being unduly influenced.
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.
Opinion: A judge's written explanation of the decision of the court. Because a case may be heard by three or more judges in the court of appeals, the opinion in appellate decisions can take several forms. If all the judges completely agree on the result, one judge will write the opinion for all. If all the judges do not agree, the formal decision will be based upon the view of the majority, and one member of the majority will write the opinion. The judges who did not agree with the majority may write separately in dissenting or concurring opinions to present their views. A dissenting opinion disagrees with the majority opinion because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law the majority used to decide the case. A concurring opinion agrees with the decision of the majority opinion, but offers further comment or clarification or even an entirely different reason for reaching the same result. Only the majority opinion can serve as binding precedent in future cases. See also precedent.
Oral argument: An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges' questions.
Parole: The release of a prison inmate - granted by the Parole Commission – after the inmate has completed part of his or her sentence in a prison. When the parolee is released to the community, he or she is placed under the supervision of a U.S. probation officer.
Party in interest: A party who has standing to be heard by the court in a matter to be decided.
Per curiam: Latin, meaning "for the court."
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.
Plaintiff: A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.
Plea: In a criminal case, the defendant's statement pleading "guilty" or "not guilty" in answer to the charges. See also nolo contendere.
Pleadings: Written statements filed with the court that 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.
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.
Probation: Sentencing option in the courts. With probation, instead of sending an individual to prison, the court releases the person to the community and orders him or her to complete a period of supervision monitored by a probation officer and to abide by certain conditions.
Probation officer: Officers of the probation office of a court. Probation officer duties include conducting presentence investigations, preparing presentence reports on convicted defendants, and supervising released defendants.
Procedure: The rules for conducting a lawsuit; there are rules of civil procedure, criminal procedure and evidence.
Pro se: Representing oneself. Serving as one's own lawyer.
Prosecute: To charge someone with a crime. A prosecutor tries a criminal case on behalf of the government.
Pro tem: Temporary.
Record: A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.
Reverse: The act of a court setting aside the decision of a lower court. A reversal is often accompanied by a remand to the lower court for further proceedings.
Sanction: A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.
Senior judge: A judge who, after attaining the requisite age and length of judicial experience, takes senior status, thus creating a vacancy among a court's active judges. A senior judge retains the judicial office and may cut back his or her workload by as much as 75 percent, but many opt to keep a larger caseload.
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.
Service of process: The delivery of writs or summonses to the appropriate party.
Settlement: Parties to a lawsuit resolve their dispute without having a trial. Settlements often involve the payment of compensation by one party in at least partial satisfaction of the other party's claims, but usually do not include the admission of fault.
Sequester: To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.
Standard of proof: Degree of proof required. In criminal cases, prosecutors must prove a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." The majority of civil lawsuits require proof "by a preponderance of the evidence" (50 percent plus), but in some the standard is higher and requires "clear and convincing" proof.
Statute: A law passed by a legislature.
Statute of limitations: The time within which a lawsuit must be filed or a criminal prosecution begun. The deadline can vary, depending on the type of civil case or the crime charged.
Sua sponte: Latin, meaning "of its own will." Often refers to a court taking an action in a case without being asked to do so by either side.
Subordination: The act or process by which a person's rights or claims are ranked below those of others.
Subpoena: A command, issued under a court's authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.
Subpoena duces tecum: A command to a witness to appear and produce documents.
Substance abuse treatment: A special condition the court imposes that requires an individual to undergo testing and treatment for abuse of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol. Treatment may include inpatient or outpatient counseling and detoxification.
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. Summary judgment is granted when - on the undisputed facts in the record - one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Supervised release: Term of supervision served after a person is released from prison. The court imposes supervised release during sentencing in addition to the sentence of imprisonment. Unlike parole, supervised release does not replace a portion of the sentence of imprisonment but is in addition to the time spent in prison. Probation officers supervise people on supervised release.
Temporary restraining order: Akin to a preliminary injunction, it is a judge's short-term order forbidding certain actions until a full hearing can be conducted. Often referred to as a TRO.
Testimony: Evidence presented orally by witnesses during trials or before grand juries.
Tort: A civil, not criminal, wrong. A negligent or intentional injury against a person or property, with the exception of breach of contract.
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.
Venue: The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction. A change of venue is a change or transfer of a case from one judicial district to another.
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: Jury selection process of questioning prospective jurors, to ascertain their qualifications and determine any basis for challenge.
Warrant: Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.
Witness: A person called upon by either side in a lawsuit to give testimony before the court or jury.
Writ: A written court order directing a person to take, or refrain from taking, a certain act.