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Guide to Legal Terms

August 31, 2021 | Purdue Global Law School

This glossary of legal terms has more than 200 entries to help non-lawyers, law students, legal staff, and practicing attorneys understand legal phrases.

1L/2L/3L/4L: A first-, second-, third-, or fourth-year law student (part-time JD programs are typically four years).


Acquittal: When a judge or jury finds a criminal defendant not guilty.

Ad hominem attack: An argument that attacks the opponent personally rather than attacking the substance of their arguments, e.g., “Defense counsel is dishonest” versus “Defense counsel’s argument relies on a false premise.” Ad hominem attacks should be avoided.

Admissible: Evidence that a judge or jury may consider during a civil or criminal case.

ADR: Alternative Dispute Resolution. Methods of resolving legal disputes outside of court. One or more neutral parties oversee the matters. Different forms of ADR may or may not be binding on the parties.

Affidavit: A written or printed statement an individual makes under oath.

Affirm: When a court of appeals concludes a lower court’s decision is correct. Also, uphold.

Affirmative defense: A theory raised by a defendant as to why they should not be found liable (in a civil case) or guilty (in a criminal case). Whereas the defendant may prevail by showing that the plaintiff or prosecution has failed to establish one or more elements of their prima facie case, with an affirmative defense, the defendant is asserting that even if all of the elements of the prima facie case are met, the defendant should still prevail. Whereas the plaintiff/prosecution generally bears the burden of establishing the elements of the prima facie case, the defendant generally bears the burden of establishing the elements of an affirmative defense.

AG: Attorney General. The principal legal officer representing a state or country in legal proceedings.

Amicus curiae: Latin meaning “friend of the court.” A brief filed by a person or organization who is not a party to the case, usually in support of one of the parties’ positions.

Annotated Code: A compilation of statutes (a code) with additional notes, references to other regulations or statutes, and relevant case summaries. Annotations are not part of the original statutory text.

Answer: In a civil case, the defendant’s response to the plaintiff’s complaint.

Appeal: When a party loses on one or more issues in court and asks a higher court to review the decision. An appeal is not a new trial. Instead, the appellate court reviews the trial record for any legal errors.

Appellant: The party appealing from a decision or ruling from the trial court below. It may be the plaintiff or defendant (or, in rare instances, the prosecution in a criminal matter).

Appellate court: A court that does not hear disputes in the first instance, but rules on claims of evidentiary, procedural, or other errors that a party contends occurred in a lower court.

Appellee: The party opposing an appeal from an appellant, i.e., the one seeking to uphold the decision or ruling from the trial court below. It may be the plaintiff or defendant in a civil case or the prosecution (or, in rare instances, the defendant) in a criminal matter.

Arbitration: A private, out-of-court form of ADR during which two or more parties agree that one or several arbitrators will decide their dispute. Arbitration typically involves a hearing and evidence but not the traditional rules of procedure or evidence required in court. Arbitration can be binding or non-binding.

Arraignment: A court hearing during which a criminal defendant is told the charges against them and required to enter a plea. It is often the first time a defendant appears in court.

Assets: All types of real, personal, tangible, and intangible property that someone owns.

Attorney: Also lawyer or counsel. In the United States, an individual who is licensed by a state to practice law.


Bail: A criminal defendant’s release from jail before trial, usually for a certain amount of money held as a bond.

Bankruptcy: A legal proceeding in federal court during which an individual or business may restructure or discharge certain debts.

Bar exam: The exam administered by each state that must be passed by those who wish to become licensed to practice law in that state. The most common format is a two-day in-person exam administered in late February or late July.

Bench trial: A trial in which the judge, not a jury, is the factfinder who decides the case.

Beyond a reasonable doubt: The burden of persuasion imposed on the prosecution in a criminal case to prove the defendant’s guilt. It is the highest burden in the American criminal justice system. It is never applicable in a civil proceeding.

Binding (authority): See “Controlling authority” below.

Blackacre: A common name for a fictional piece of land used to discuss real property issues (often used with “Whiteacre”).

Black’s Law: Reference to Black’s Law Dictionary, a secondary legal authority that defines and provides background on legal terms. It is widely used in the United States.

Bluebook: A citation manual and style guide published by the editors of law journals at Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. Many law schools and legal professionals use it. As of 2021, The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation is in its 20th edition.

Brief: A written document submitted to a court that delineates a party’s legal argument.

Burden of proof: The duty a party has to prove the allegations. In a civil case, the plaintiff typically has the burden of proving the elements of their claims. In a criminal case, the prosecution (the government) has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt. The defendant typically bears the burden of proof on any affirmative defenses.

Burden of persuasion: See also Standard of proof. The threshold by which a party must satisfy their burden of proof. A civil plaintiff typically must prove their claims by a preponderance of the evidence. A criminal prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In practice, the terms “burden of proof” and “burden of persuasion” are used interchangeably. 


CALI: Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. Free study aids on common law school subjects. A “CALI Award” is given to the student with the highest grade in their class if a law school participates in the CALI Excellence for the Future Award program. 

Call of the question: In law school testing, the actual prompt the student is asked to respond to, e.g., “What claims does Al have against Baker and Charlie?” It is generally synonymous with Interrogatory.

Capital offense: A crime punishable by death.

Case: May refer to an appellate opinion, a dispute between parties, or any matter being handled by an attorney.

Casebook: The main text for fundamental law school courses, such as torts, contracts, and property, containing a selection of legal cases.

Case file: A complete record of every document filed in a case.

Case law: A law established by one or more previous court decisions. The same as legal precedent.

Caseload: The number of cases a judge, court, or lawyer handles at one time.

Cause of action/claim: A distinct theory of liability in a civil suit, e.g., breach of express warranty might be one cause of action, and breach of implied warranty of merchantability would be a second cause of action. Causes of action must be enumerated in the plaintiff’s complaint.

Charge: An accusation of violation of a specific criminal wrong against a criminal defendant, e.g., there may be one charge (or “count”) for robbery and another charge for aggravated assault. There are never “charges” in civil cases, only claims or causes of action. Conversely, there are not “claims” in criminal cases, only charges (or “counts”).

Circuit Court: An intermediate appellate court in the federal court system, e.g., the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Circular reasoning: A type of flaw in argument that supposes the very thing it is trying to prove (e.g., “Dan had the requisite intent for assault because he intended to hit Paul”).

Citation: A reference that helps a reader locate a primary or secondary source.

Civil: Proceedings that involve disputes between private parties for breach of contract, negligence, etc. Civil trials involve (at a minimum) a plaintiff suing a defendant.

Class action: A lawsuit when one or a few members of a large group (the class) act as the representative plaintiff(s) and sue on behalf of the entire class. A court must certify and define the class for a class action lawsuit to move forward.

Clerk of the court: A court officer responsible for an administrative function of the court system.

Collateral: Property that a debtor uses to secure a loan. A lender can confiscate the collateral if the debtor defaults on their loan.

Code: A compilation of laws or regulations on a particular subject.

Common law: A legal system originated in England and used in the United States, which relies on legal principles articulated in past judicial decisions. State and federal legislation can change common law principles.

Complaint: The document filed by a plaintiff in a civil case that initiates the case. It enumerates the claims or cause of actions and sets forth the factual allegations that, if proven, would establish the plaintiff’s entitlement to prevail on those claims.

Concurrent sentence: When an individual serves two or more prison terms at the same time.

Concurring opinion: An opinion written by an appellate judge on a multi-judge panel that agrees with the outcome of the majority opinion (the “opinion of the court”), but differs regarding the reasoning or some other aspect of the majority opinion.

Consecutive sentence: When an individual must serve two or more prison terms one after the other.

Contract: An agreement in which two or more people agree to do or not do something in particular. The parties must meet certain conditions for a written or oral contract to be legally binding.

Controlling (authority): A source that must be followed in a given matter because of the hierarchy of the source. For example, opinions from an intermediate appellate court within a jurisdiction are binding on lower (trial) courts within that jurisdiction, and opinions from the highest appellate court within the jurisdiction are binding on all intermediate appellate courts within that jurisdiction. (Compare “persuasive authority” below.)

Conviction: When a judge or jury determines a defendant is guilty.

Counsel: An individual licensed to practice law by their state. Synonymous with lawyer or attorney.

Count: One allegation of criminal conduct. A criminal indictment or information may contain one or more counts. In a civil claim, a count is a unique theory of liability. A civil complaint can contain one or more counts. The term is more frequently used in criminal cases.

Court: A government entity entitled to resolve legal disputes. When written with a lower case, “court,” it can refer to any court. When written with a capital, “the Court,” it typically refers to the Supreme Court of the United States. In a brief, even to a lower court, the author may refer to the specific court itself as “the Court.”

Court reporter: An individual who creates a word-for-word record of what was said in court to produce a transcript.

Creditor: The individual or business that lent money or a line of credit to a borrower.

Criminal: Proceedings that involve the state or federal government (the prosecution) bringing charges against a defendant.


DA: District attorney. The district attorney is a public official who acts as a prosecutor for a state government.

Damages: A sum of money the defendant pays a plaintiff. Compensatory damages reimburse the plaintiff for their physical, emotional, and financial injuries. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant.

Debtor: The individual who has borrowed money or a credit line and must pay back the creditor. The term may also refer to a person who files a petition for relief in Bankruptcy Court.

Decision: A court ruling, which a judge or panel of judges may or may not explain in an opinion.

De facto: Latin meaning “in fact.” Something exists in fact but not as a matter of law.

Default judgment: When the court awards a judgment to a plaintiff because the defendant failed to appear in court or respond to the complaint.

Defendant: The party defending a lawsuit in a civil matter, or being charged with a crime in a criminal matter.

De jure: Latin meaning “in law.” Something exists because of the law (compare “de facto”).

Demurrer: The term used for a “motion to dismiss” (see below) in California and some other jurisdictions.

Deposition: An oral statement an individual makes under oath, outside of court. Usually, lawyers conduct depositions with potential witnesses during the discovery phase in civil litigation.

De novo: Latin meaning “anew.” De novo refers to a court deciding an issue for the first time. It often refers specifically to an appellate court deciding an issue without giving any deference to the ruling of the lower court.

Dicta: Statements made by a court in an opinion that are not necessary to the holding, and so may not be binding even on lower courts. Whether a statement is dicta or not may sometimes be a matter of debate.

Digests: Texts, usually several volumes, containing summaries of legal issues in cases and organized by subjects.

Discovery: A phase of litigation during which both sides of a dispute use various legal tools to obtain evidence before trial.

Dismissed with prejudice: When a court terminates a legal action and prevents the party from filing an identical lawsuit at a later date.

Dismissed without prejudice: When a court terminates a legal action, but the party is allowed to file the lawsuit again at a later date.

Disposition: What a court did with a case, such as “affirmed” or “reversed.” This is different from “conclusion,” which answers the issue raised.

Dissent: A separate opinion by a judge on a multi-judge panel that disagrees with the holding of the majority.

District court: A trial court in the federal court system.

Docket: A chronological history of the proceedings in each case heard by the court. It can also refer to matters presently scheduled to be heard (e.g., a motion may be “on the docket”).


En banc: French meaning “on the bench.” When all judges on an appellate court hear a case instead of a panel of three judges.

Element/requirement vs. factor/consideration: Elements/requirements are pieces of a rule, all of which must be met for the rule to apply. Factors/considerations are weighed against each other, but the mere presence or absence of one or more of them will not necessarily dictate an outcome. Duty, breach, causation, and damages are elements of a negligence cause of action. Prior criminal history, extent of harm, and indications of remorse are factors a court might consider in sentencing a defendant.

Equitable: Refers to something fair, balanced, or impartial. May also describe remedies available from a court acting “in equity” (see immediately below).

Equity: Refers to a set of procedures and remedies in civil law distinct from “legal” procedures and remedies. Historically, equity referred to a court’s ability to order someone to do or not do something, whereas “law” referred to the court’s ability to order a party to pay damages. Most courts today can award both legal and equitable remedies.

Evidence: Information presented in court to persuade a judge or jury that something is true. Evidence includes but is not limited to oral testimony, documents, and physical objects.

Exhibit: A document or object introduced at trial as evidence, or a copy of a document that is referred to and incorporated into the main document (e.g., Exhibit A to a contract).

Ex parte: A legal proceeding in which only one party appears before the court without giving the other party notice or the ability to defend themselves. The term is also often used to refer to a motion filed on an emergency or expedited basis.

Exclusionary rule: Principle that when the prosecution obtains evidence through a violation of a defendant’s constitutional or statutory rights, that evidence is inadmissible.

Exculpatory evidence: Evidence that indicates the defendant did not commit the crime.


Factor/consideration vs. element/requirement: Elements/requirements are pieces of a rule, all of which must be met for the rule to apply. Factors/considerations are weighed against each other, but the mere presence or absence of one or more of them will not necessarily dictate an outcome. Duty, breach, causation, and damages are elements of a negligence cause of action. Prior criminal history, extent of harm, and indications of remorse are factors a court might consider in sentencing a defendant.

Felony: A serious criminal offense, usually punishable by more than one year in jail or prison.

File: To give a document to the clerk of the court to begin a lawsuit or be entered into an existing case file. There are often deadlines to “file” a pleading or motion with a court, which may be distinct from deadlines to “serve” the pleading or motion on another party.


Grand jury: A group of citizens that listens to evidence presented by a prosecutor to determine whether there is probable cause to indict someone with a crime. Every jurisdiction determines how and when to use grand juries.

Guilty/Not guilty: The outcome of a criminal proceeding against a defendant. This terminology is not used in civil proceedings. U.S. courts do not have a finding of “innocent.” A finding of “not guilty” means the prosecution failed in its burden of proof.


Habeas corpus: Latin meaning “You have the body.” A writ of habeas corpus is a (typically federal) court order that requires a (typically state) law enforcement body to produce a prisoner it is holding and to justify the prisoner’s confinement. Individuals can file petitions for a writ of habeas corpus to challenge their incarceration.

Headnote: A summary of a point of law in a case, provided by Westlaw or another commercial legal research database. A headnote can be a helpful research tool, but you must read and analyze the case for yourself. You may not cite to a headnote or synopsis.

Hearsay: An out-of-court statement offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Classically, it is witness testimony about something they did not see or hear themselves but heard about from someone else. With some exceptions, hearsay is generally inadmissible.

Holding: How a court applies a rule statement to the specific case and parties.

Hornbook: A text explaining the basics of a legal subject. It is a secondary source for law students.


Impeachment: When a lawyer calls a witness’s testimony into doubt, or when the U.S. House of Representatives accuses a higher officer in the federal government of misconduct.

In camera: Latin meaning “in a chamber.” Refers to what takes place in a judge’s chambers, away from the jury or public, e.g., a judge may review a document that is claimed to be privileged “in camera” to determine whether the privilege applies.

Inculpatory evidence: Evidence indicating a defendant’s guilt.

Indictment: A formal criminal charge issued by a grand jury and typically used for felony-level charges.

Information: A formal accusation by a government authority that an individual committed a crime. Typically used for misdemeanors or whenever a grand jury is not utilized.

Injunction: A court order that prevents one or more parties from doing something.

Intermediate (appellate) court: In the hierarchy of courts within a jurisdiction, a court that is higher than the lowest (trial) court, but lower than the highest appellate court (usually called the supreme court).

Interrogatory: In law school testing, it is generally synonymous with “call of the question” (defined above). In context, it may refer to a particular discovery device used in civil litigation whereby a party can ask another party to respond in writing to specific written questions.

IRAC: Issue; Rule; Application [of Rules to Facts] / Analysis; Conclusion. This is the standard and preferred method of addressing issues in law school essays.


Jargon vs. layman’s terms: Jargon is specialized terminology only known to people in a particular field. Layman’s terms is terminology that anyone would be expected to understand. For example: “in propria persona” versus “self-represented.”

Judgment: Usually refers to the decision of the court. Often refers specifically to a money judgment one is trying to enforce. Notice the lack of an “e” between the g and m.

Jurisdiction: A court’s legal authority to hear and decide a particular dispute, or a government agency’s right to exercise its power in a particular geographic region.

Jury: A group of individuals chosen to hear evidence and decide a civil or criminal matter.

Jury Instructions: Directions given to the jury by the judge before deliberations in a civil or criminal case. The instructions outline the legal rules and the factual questions the jury must decide.


Key number: The West digest system on Westlaw uses more than 400 topics to classify all legal issues. Every topic is outlined with sub-topic numbers, which are called key numbers. The system helps legal researchers find cases involving specific topics or issues quickly.


Lawsuit: A formal legal action that a plaintiff starts by filing a complaint against a defendant. The plaintiff must allege some type of misconduct that caused the plaintiff harm.

Lawyer: Also attorney or counsel. An individual licensed by a state to practice law.

Legalese: Overly formal, archaic, and often unnecessary language used in legal writing when simpler, more familiar words could be used. Examples: “hereinafter,” “heretofore.”

LexisNexis: A legal publisher providing electronic legal research capabilities. One of the top legal research systems for law students and attorneys. A major competitor of Westlaw.

Liable/Not liable: The outcome of a civil trial as to the defendant’s responsibility for the applicable cause of action (e.g., breach of contract, negligence, etc.). A civil defendant is never “found guilty.”

Litigation: The process of resolving a dispute in the court system (a lawsuit), during which the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) are called litigants.


Magistrate: A minor judicial officer or one that is subordinate to a judge. Magistrates may handle discovery disputes in general civil cases, or hear other specialized disputes (e.g., traffic offenses or certain probate matters).

MBE: The Multistate Bar Exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions administered in two three-hour sessions. It is part of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). Almost all states (even those that have not adopted the UBE) administer the MBE as part of their bar exam.

Mediation: A form of ADR during which the parties agree to hire a neutral third party, a mediator, to guide the conversation and help them reach a mutually agreeable resolution. The mediator does not decide the issues involved in the matter.

Misdemeanor: A less serious criminal offense, usually punishable by one year or less in jail or prison and/or a fine

Mistrial: When a trial or the result of a trial is invalid due to a fundamental mistake. A mistrial results in a new trial with a new jury.

Moot: An issue that isn’t subject to a court ruling because it is no longer an active dispute and so is not relevant. (“Moot court,” by contrast, refers to appellate advocacy competitions in law school.)

Motion: A litigant’s request for the judge to decide an issue in a case.

Motion in limine: A pretrial motion typically requesting the judge to rule that specific evidence is inadmissible. 

Motion to dismiss: A motion brought by a defendant, usually early in litigation, seeking to have a claim or charge, as applicable, or the entire proceeding, dismissed. A motion to dismiss generally must be based on the allegations in the complaint, not outside evidence, and asserts that even if the factual allegations in the complaint were true, they would not state a viable claim.

MPRE: Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam. A two-hour, 60-question multiple-choice exam that is distinct from the bar exam, and is required for JD students who wish to become licensed in California and most other jurisdictions. It is usually taken after JD students have taken Professional Responsibility, typically in the 3L year.


Negligence: A person or business’s failure to behave with the level of care required by law. Typically, a party must behave as a generally prudent person would under the same or similar circumstances, and if they fail to do so, they have acted negligently.

Nolo contendere: Means “no contest.” A plea a defendant can enter in a criminal case, which has the same effect as a guilty plea in terms of a conviction and sentence, but which cannot be used against the defendant in a subsequent civil suit for damages.

Non sequitur: A conclusion or other statement that does not logically follow from what came before it, often because some necessarily logical connector or transitional statement is missing, e.g., “Dan was driving in the rain. Dan will definitely be found liable for negligence.”

Nutshell: Legal research and study texts published by West Group.


Opinion: A statement of decision issued by a court, which typically includes factual and/or procedural background and an explanation of the reasoning behind the decision. Published opinions are typically from appellate courts, but may be from trial courts as well. See also Case.

Oral argument: When lawyers summarize their positions before a judge or panel of judges and answer their questions.

Outcome determinative: An element or sub-issue on which a larger issue turns. For example, in a murder prosecution—though there might be facts that indicate that the defendant did or didn’t act with the requisite intent—if the victim didn’t actually die, that would be outcome determinative (i.e., it would establish the defendant is not guilty of murder regardless of his intent).


Panel: A group of judges decides appellate cases. Alternatively, during jury selection, a group of potential jurors. In criminal matters, a list of qualified and available defense attorneys the court can appoint to serve as defense counsel.

Parallel citation: More than one official and unofficial reporter can publish court opinions. Each reporter has a unique citation. The different citations for the same opinions are parallel citations.

Parole: When an incarcerated person is released from prison early and placed under supervision.

Parade of horribles: Argument that asserts that a legal or policy change will cause terrible unintended consequences. See Slippery slope.

Peremptory challenge: During jury selection, the court allows each side to exclude a specific number of potential jurors without cause or reason.

Persuasive (authority): A source that may be well reasoned but need not necessarily be followed in a given matter because of the hierarchy of the source. For example, opinions from an intermediate appellate court within a jurisdiction may be binding on lower (trial) courts within that jurisdiction, but would at best be persuasive authority for parallel appellate courts or the highest appellate court within the jurisdiction. So, too, opinions of the highest court within one jurisdiction will only be persuasive for even on the lowest courts in another jurisdiction. Secondary sources are always persuasive at best, never controlling.

Petit jury: Also a trial jury. A group of individuals who hear the evidence and decide a civil dispute or criminal charge. (Compare “grand jury” above.)

Petition: The document a person files to begin a civil legal proceeding. It may be another term for “complaint,” or it may be the document that initiates an appeal.

Petitioner: Generally, a party who petitions a court for relief of some sort. Often synonymous with appellant.

Plaintiff: The party bringing a claim or cause of action against a defendant in a civil suit. There is never the “prosecution” in a civil suit.

Plea: A defendant must declare their guilt or innocence at the beginning of a criminal case. Pleas include guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere.

Pleading: Written statements filed with the court during a legal matter.

POTUS: The President of the United States.

Precedent: Prior case law that provides a basis for a court to rule a certain in factually or legally similar circumstances.

Preponderance of the evidence: The typical burden of persuasion placed on a plaintiff in a civil case to prove the elements of their claims or causes of action. It is often described as a “more likely than not” standard and is far less stringent than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal cases.

Pretrial conference: A meeting between the lawyers and judge to plan for trial, during which they may review the proposed evidence, the matters they should present to the jury, and the schedule. Can include settlement negotiations.

Prima facie case: What the plaintiff in a civil case, or prosecution in a criminal case, must establish in order to prevail on a claim or charge, as applicable. Generally requires showing that all of the elements of the claim or charge have been met

Primary sources/primary law: Opinions issued by a court, statutes issued by a legislature, or other binding rules or orders promulgated by a governmental entity with the authority to do so. They may be binding/controlling or persuasive, depending on the jurisdiction and context.

Probation: A criminal sentencing option. The penal system releases a convicted individual to the community but under court supervision for a time. Usually, the individual must check in with a probation officer and follow numerous conditions.

Pro bono: Free legal services.

Procedural vs. substantive: A general distinction between rules, principles, or issues that deal with the mechanics of how a dispute is handled by the justice system (procedural), versus those that address the merits or factual nature of the dispute itself (substantive).

Pro se: When an individual acts as their own lawyer in a civil or criminal case.

Prosecution: The general term for the governmental entity responsible for bringing and pursuing charges against a criminal defendant. This term is never used in a civil suit.

Public defender: The general term for the governmental entity responsible for representing criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney. This term is never used in a civil suit.


Rationale: The reasoning underlying a court’s holding.

Reasonable inference: An inference not explicitly stated in a fact pattern, but which is reasonable to infer given the facts that exist. Is not an inference that one merely hopes to be true or that there is a remote possibility that it is true.

Record: The written history of a case’s proceedings, including the pleadings, evidence, and exhibits.

Regulation: A rule or order issued by an agency of the executive branch, which has the force of law.

Relevance: The logical connection between evidence and the issues in the case or the proposition for which the evidence is offered. Relevant evidence that tends to prove that a disputed fact is or is not true.

Remand: To send back. An appellate court can remand a case to the trial court.

Reporter: Texts that publish court opinions. They may be official or unofficial sources.

Respondent: Generally, a party who opposes a petitioner’s request to a court for relief of some sort. Often synonymous with appellee.

Restatement: The Restatements of Law are secondary (non-binding) texts produced by the American Law Institute and written by legal scholars. They provide information on major areas of common law (case law).

Reverse: When an appellate court sets aside a lower court’s decision. A reversal often comes with a remand for further proceedings by the lower court.

Rule statement: A statement of law stated in general terms. If the statement explains how the rule applies to the particular facts, it is NOT a rule statement.

Ruling: A court order or judgment. It may be for a particular issue within a case or the final verdict. Or, in administrative law, an interpretation of a regulation.


Sanction: A penalty, usually a fine paid to the court, when a party disobeys a law or court order.

Secondary sources/secondary law: Sources other than primary sources (cases, statutes, or rules), which may explain or provide commentary on primary sources. Secondary sources may be persuasive, but will never be binding/controlling.

Sentence: A criminal punishment decided by a court after a judge or jury finds a defendant guilty of a crime.

Sequester: To separate. Juries are often separated from the public to avoid outside opinions influencing their decisions. Sequestration may also refer to non-party witnesses being excluded from watching a trial unless and until they have testified.

Service: To deliver a document to a party or witness, e.g., to “serve” a party with discovery requests or a notice of deposition.

Service of process: To deliver a court summons to a party.

Settlement: When parties of a lawsuit resolve their dispute outside of court.

SCOTUS: The Supreme Court of the United States.

Shepardize: A way of locating the subsequent history of a case or statute. Allows researchers to find later decisions that follow, overrule, or cite a case. 

Slippery slope argument: Arguing that allowing one change in law and policy will inevitably lead to more radical and undesirable changes, thus we shouldn’t make any change at all to prevent this possible outcome. See Parade of horribles.

Standard of proof: The degree of proof required in a civil or criminal case. Criminal cases require proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Most civil cases require proof by a preponderance of the evidence, though some require clear and convincing proof.

Stare decisis: Latin meaning “let the decision stand.” Once a court has established a precedent, it should follow it in future similar cases unless there is a compelling reason not to.

Statute: A written law enacted by a state or federal legislature.

Statute of limitations: The deadline for filing a particular cause of action.

Strawman argument: Making it appear as though you are refuting an opponent’s argument, while arguing against a position the opponent never actually took or against an unfairly weak version of the opponent’s argument.

Sua sponte: Latin meaning “of its own will.” When a court acts in a case without either party asking it to.

Subordination: When one party’s right or claim ranks below another party’s right or claim.

Subpoena: A court’s command requiring a witness to appear and testify.

Subpoena duces tecum: A court’s command requiring a witness to appear and bring relevant documents.

Substantive law: Laws that create, define, and regulate parties’ rights, duties, and powers. See Procedural vs. substantive above.

Summary judgment: A party to a civil case may move for, and a court may grant, summary judgment prior to trial where there is no genuine issue of disputed material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Summary judgment may be granted as to a particular claim or cause of action (in which case it is typically called “summary adjudication”), or as to the entire case.

Supreme Court: Refers to a level of a court, which varies by jurisdiction. Generally, a supreme court is the highest court in a jurisdiction. However, in New York, the Supreme Court is the lowest trial court.


Table of Cases: A periodical index used to locate articles written about particular cases.

Testimony: A form of evidence. An individual makes an oral statement and answers questions during a grand jury or trial.

Torts: A civil wrong other than a breach of contract, which creates a legal claim.

Transcript: A word-for-word record of what was said during a deposition or at trial.

Treatise: A detailed text on a specific legal topic. A secondary legal resource offering a detailed analysis of an area of law.

Trial court: The lowest court within the court system hierarchy, and the first to hear a dispute. The only type of court that will involve juries, and typically the only court to involve the examination of witnesses.


UCC: The Uniform Commercial Code.

Unannotated code: A compilation of statutes or regulations that includes only the text of the law.

Uniform laws: Compilations of laws sponsored by the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws. These are proposed to state legislatures for consideration.

Unofficial reporter: A publication of case opinions or laws not authorized by statute or ruling. The language of the opinions is identical in official and unofficial reporters, but unofficial reports may also include headnotes, synopses, or other features.

Uphold: Also affirm. An appellate court agrees with a lower court’s decision.

U.S. Attorney: A lawyer appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate for each federal judicial district. Represents the federal government in criminal and civil cases and acts under the direction of the Attorney General (AG). (Prosecutors for the states are referred to as “district attorneys.”)


Venue: The geographic area in which a court has jurisdiction; or the appropriate geographical court branch within a jurisdiction for a matter to be heard.

Verdict: A decision by a jury on a matter submitted to it by a judge. It may also refer to the decision rendered by a judge in a bench trial, although that may also be called a “finding.”

Voir dire: French meaning “to speak the truth.” Most commonly, it refers to the jury selection process. Parties question potential jurors to determine their qualifications to sit on the jury. Parties can disqualify prospective jurors for cause or through peremptory challenges.


Warrant: A written authorization by a court for a law enforcement agency to make an arrest or conduct a search and seizure.

Westlaw: A proprietary database and online legal research service owned by Thomson Reuters. A major competitor of LexisNexis.

Whiteacre: A common name for a fictional piece of land used to discuss real property issues (often used with “Blackacre”).

Witness: An individual called by either side during a dispute to give testimony before the court.

Writ: A written court order telling a party to do or not do something.

Writ of certiorari: An order that the U.S. Supreme Court issues directing a lower court to transfer records of a case that it will hear on appeal. When the Supreme Court exercises its discretion to hear an appeal from a state supreme court or a lower federal court, it is commonly referred to as “granting cert.”

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Purdue Global Law School

Established in 1998, Purdue Global Law School (formerly Concord Law School) is Purdue University's fully online law school for working adults.

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