Glossary of Legal Terms (Abridged)

A

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.
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Active judge

A judge in the full-time service of the court.

Admissible

A term used to describe evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge

  in civil and criminal cases.
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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.
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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.
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Alternative dispute resolution

A procedure for settling a dispute outside the courtroom. Most forms of ADR are not binding,

and involve referral of the case to a neutral party such as an arbitrator or mediator.
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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.
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Answer

The formal written statement by a defendant in a civil case that responds to a complaint,

articulating the grounds for defense.
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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.”
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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.
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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. 
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Article III judge

A federal judge who is appointed for life, during “good behavior,” under Article III

of the Constitution. Article III judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
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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.
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B

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.
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Bankruptcy

A legal procedure for dealing with debt problems of individuals and businesses;

specifically, a case filed under one of the chapters of title 11 of the United States Code (the Bankruptcy Code).
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Bankruptcy code

The informal name for title 11 of the United States Code (11 U.S.C. §§ 101-1330), the federal bankruptcy law.

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.)
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C

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.
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Case load

The number of cases handled by a judge or a court.

Cause of action

A legal claim or reason to initiate litigation.

Chambers

The offices of a judge and his or her staff.

Claim

A creditor’s assertion of a right to payment from a debtor or the debtor’s property.

Class action

A lawsuit in which one or more members of a large group, or class, of individuals

or other entities sue on behalf of the entire class. The district court must find that the claims of the class members contain questions of law or fact in common before the lawsuit can proceed as a class action.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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D

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).
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De facto

Latin, meaning “in fact” or “actually.” Something that exists in fact but not necessarily as a matter of law.

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.

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.
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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.
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Defendant

An individual (or business) against whom a lawsuit is filed.

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.

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.
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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 a 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.
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E

En banc

French, meaning “on the bench.” All judges of an appellate court sitting together

to hear a case, as opposed to the routine disposition by panels of three judges. In the Ninth Circuit, an en banc panel consists of 11 randomly selected judges.
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Equitable

Pertaining to civil suits in “equity” rather than in “law.” In English legal history,

the courts of “law” could order the payment of damages and could afford no other remedy (see damages). A separate court of “equity” could order someone to do something or to cease to do something (e.g., injunction). In American jurisprudence, the federal courts have both legal and equitable power, but the distinction is still an important one. For example, a trial by jury is normally available in “law” cases but not in “equity” cases.
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Equity

The value of a debtor’s interest in property that remains after liens and other creditors’ interests are considered.

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.

Ex parte

A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.

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.

Executory contracts

Contracts or leases under which both parties to the agreement have duties remaining

to be performed. If a contract or lease is executory, a debtor may assume it (keep the contract) or reject it (terminate the contract).
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Exempt assets

Property that a debtor is allowed to retain, free from the claims of creditors who do not have liens on the property.

F

Federal question jurisdiction

Jurisdiction given to federal courts in cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties.

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.

Fraudulent transfer

A transfer of a debtor’s property made with intent to defraud or for which the debtor receives less than the transferred property’s value.

G

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.

H

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. Federal judges receive petitions for a writ of habeas corpus from state prison inmates who say their state prosecutions violated federally protected rights in some way.
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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.
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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.
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I

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.
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In camera

Latin, meaning in a judge’s chambers. Often means outside the presence of a jury and the public. In private.

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.
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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. 
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Information

A formal accusation by a government attorney that the defendant committed a misdemeanor. See also indictment.

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.
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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.

J

Joint administration

A court-approved mechanism under which two or more cases can be administered together.

(Assuming no conflicts of interest, these separate businesses or individuals can pool their resources, hire the same professionals, etc.)
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Joint petition

One bankruptcy petition filed by a husband and wife together.

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.
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Judgeship

The position of judge. By statute, Congress authorizes the number of judgeships for each district and appellate court.

Judgment

The official decision of a court finally resolving the dispute between the parties to the lawsuit.

Judicial Conference of the United States

The policy-making entity for the federal court system. A 27-judge body whose presiding officer is the Chief Justice of the United States.

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.
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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.

L

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.

Liquidation

The sale of a debtor’s property with the proceeds to be used for the benefit of creditors.

Litigation

A case, controversy, or lawsuit. Participants (plaintiffs and defendants) in lawsuits are called litigants.

M

Magistrate judge

A judicial officer of a district court who conducts initial proceedings in criminal cases,

decides criminal misdemeanor cases, conducts many pretrial civil and criminal matters on behalf of district judges, and decides civil cases with the consent of the parties. 
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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.
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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.
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Motion to lift the automatic stay

A request by a creditor to allow the creditor to take action against the debtor

or the debtor’s property that would otherwise be prohibited by the automatic stay.
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N

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.
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Nondischargeable debt

A debt that cannot be eliminated in bankruptcy. Examples include a home 

mortgage, debts for alimony or child support, certain taxes, debts for most government funded or guaranteed educational loans or benefit overpayments, debts arising from death or personal injury caused by driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, and debts for restitution or a criminal fine included in a sentence on the debtor’s conviction of a crime. Some debts, such as debts for money or property obtained by false pretenses and debts for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity may be declared nondischargeable only if a creditor timely files and prevails in a nondischargeability action.
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Nonexempt assets

Property of a debtor that can be liquidated to satisfy claims of creditors.

O

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.
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Oral argument

An opportunity for lawyers to summarize their position before the court and also to answer the judges’ questions.

P

Panel

1. In appellate cases, a group of judges (usually three) assigned to decide the case;

2. In the jury selection process, the group of potential jurors; 3. The list of attorneys who are both available and qualified to serve as court-appointed counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford their own counsel.
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Parole

The release of a prison inmate – granted by the U.S. Parole Commission – after the 

inmate has completed part of his or her sentence in a federal prison. When the parolee is released to the community, he or she is placed under the supervision of a U.S. probation officer.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished parole in favor of a determinate sentencing system in which the sentence is set by sentencing guidelines. Now, without the option of parole, the term of imprisonment the court imposes is the actual time the person spends in prison.

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Per curiam

Latin, meaning “for the court.” In appellate courts, often refers to an unsigned opinion.

Peremptory challenge

A district court may grant each side in a civil or criminal trial the right to exclude

a certain number of prospective jurors without cause or giving a reason.
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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. Federal criminal juries consist of 12 persons. Federal civil juries consist of at least six persons.
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Petty offense

A federal misdemeanor punishable by six months or less in prison.

Plaintiff

A person or business that files a formal complaint with the court.

Plan

A debtor’s detailed description of how the debtor proposes to pay creditors’ claims over a fixed period of time.

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.
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Presentence report

A report prepared by a court’s probation officer, after a person has been convicted

of an offense, summarizing for the court the background information needed to determine the appropriate sentence.
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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.
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Pretrial services

A function of the federal courts that takes place at the very start of the criminal justice

process – after a person has been arrested and charged with a federal crime and before he or she goes to trial. Pretrial services officers focus on investigating the backgrounds of these persons to help the court determine whether to release or detain them while they await trial. The decision is based on whether these individuals are likely to flee or pose a threat to the community. If the court orders release, a pretrial services officer supervises the person in the community until he or she returns to court.
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Priority

The Bankruptcy Code’s statutory ranking of unsecured claims that determines the order

in which unsecured claims will be paid if there is not enough money to pay all unsecured claims in full.
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Pro per

A slang expression sometimes used to refer to a pro se litigant. It is a corruption of the Latin phrase “in propria persona.”

Pro se

Representing oneself. Serving as one’s own lawyer.

R

Record

A written account of the proceedings in a case, including all pleadings, evidence, and exhibits submitted in the course of the case.

Remand

Send back to a lower court with specific instructions after an appeal.

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.

S

Sanction

A penalty or other type of enforcement used to bring about compliance with the law or with rules and regulations.

Secured creditor

A secured creditor is an individual or business that holds a claim against the debtor

that is secured by a lien on property of the estate. The property subject to the lien is the secured creditor’s collateral.
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Secured debt

Debt backed by a mortgage, pledge of collateral, or other lien; debt for

which the creditor has the right to pursue specific pledged property upon default. Examples include home mortgages, auto loans and tax liens.
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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.
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Sequester

To separate. Sometimes juries are sequestered from outside influences during their deliberations.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

T

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.
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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. 
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Transfer

Any mode or means by which a debtor disposes of or parts with his/her property.

U

U.S. attorney

A lawyer appointed by the President in each judicial district to prosecute

and defend cases for the federal government. The U.S. Attorney employs a staff of Assistant U.S. Attorneys who appear as the government’s attorneys in individual cases.
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Undersecured claim

A debt secured by property that is worth less than the amount of the debt.

Undue hardship

The most widely used test for evaluating undue hardship in the dischargeability of

a student loan includes three conditions: (1) the debtor cannot maintain – based on current income and expenses – a minimal standard of living if forced to repay the loans; (2) there are indications that the state of affairs is likely to persist for a significant portion of the repayment period; and (3) the debtor made good faith efforts to repay the loans.
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Unlawful detainer action

A lawsuit brought by a landlord against a tenant to evict the tenant from rental property – usually for nonpayment of rent.

Unliquidated claim

A claim for which a specific value has not been determined.

Uphold

The appellate court agrees with the lower court decision and allows it to stand. See affirmed.

V

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.

W

Wage garnishment

A nonbankruptcy legal proceeding whereby a plaintiff or creditor seeks to subject

to his or her claim the future wages of a debtor. In other words, the creditor seeks to have part of the debtor’s future wages paid to the creditor for a debt owed to the creditor.
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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.

Writ of certiorari

An order issued by the U.S. Supreme Court directing the lower court to transmit records for a case which it will hear on appeal.