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activist approach

An approach to judicial review which holds that judges should discover the general principles underlying the Constitution and its often vague language, amplify those principles on the basis of some moral or economic philosophy, and apply them to cases.

amicus curiae

A Latin term meaning "friend of the court." Refers to interested groups or individuals, not directly involved in a suit, who may file legal briefs or oral arguments in support of one side.

brief

A legal document submitted by lawyers to courts. It sets forth the facts of a case, summarizes any lower court decisions on the case, gives the arguments for the side represented by the lawyer filing the brief, and discusses decisions in other cases that bear on the issue.

civil law

Rules defining relationships among private citizens.

class-action suit

A case brought into court by a person on behalf of not only himself or herself but all other persons in similar circumstances.

concurring opinion

An opinion by one or more justices who agree with the majority's conclusion but for different reasons that they wish to express.

conservative/strict constructionist bloc

One of three groups of justices in the 1970s and 1980s, including Chief justice Warren Burger, who took a consistently conservative position on issues.

constitutional court

Lower federal courts created by Congress which exercise the judicial powers delineated in Article III of the Constitution.

courts of appeals

The federal courts that have the authority to review decisions by federal district courts, regulatory commissions, and certain other federal courts. Such courts have no original jurisdiction; they can hear only appeals.

criminal law

A body of rules defining offenses that are considered to be offenses against society as a whole and for which conviction could result in a prison term

dissenting opinion

The opinion of the justices on the losing side.

district courts

The lowest federal courts where federal cases begin. They are the only federal courts where trials are held.

diversity cases

Jurisdiction conferred by the Constitution on federal courts to hear cases involving citizens of different states. The matter, however, must involve more than $50,000, and even then the parties have the option of commencing the suit in state court.

dual sovereignty

A doctrine holding that state and federal authorities can prosecute the same person for the same conduct, each authority prosecuting under its own law.

federal-question cases

Jurisdiction conferred by the Constitution on federal courts to hear all cases "arising under the Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties."

fee shifting

A practice that enables plaintiffs to collect their costs from a defendant if the defendant loses. The Supreme Court has limited fee shifting to cases in which it is authorized by statute.

in forma pauperis

A petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by an indigent person. The normal $300 filing fee is waived for such petitions.

judicial review

The right of federal courts to declare laws of Congress and acts of the executive branch void and unenforceable if they are judged to be in conflict with the Constitution.

legislative court

A lower federal court created by Congress for specialized purposes. These justices have fixed terms of office, can be removed from office, and may have their salaries reduced while in office.

liberal/activist bloc

One of three groups of justices in the 1970s and 1980s, led by Justice William Brennan, who took a consistently liberal position on issues. It was usually in the minority.

litmus test

A test of ideological purity used by recent presidents in selecting and senators in confirming judges to nominate to federal courts.

Marbury v. Madison

A decision of the Supreme Court written by Chief justice John Marshall in 1803 which interpreted the Constitution as giving the Supreme Court the power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. This decision is the foundation of the federal judiciary's power of judicial review.

McCulloch v. Maryland

A decision of the Supreme Court written by Chief justice John Marshall in 1819 which held that the power of the federal government flows from the people and should be generously construed so that any laws "necessary and proper" to the attainment of constitutional ends are permissible, and that federal law is supreme over state law even to the point that the state may not tax an enterprise (such as a bank) created by the federal government.

opinion of the Court

An opinion by the Supreme Court that reflects the majority's view.

per curiam opinion

A brief and unsigned opinion by the Supreme Court.

plaintiff

The party that initiates a suit in law.

political question

An issue that the Court refuses to consider because it believes the Constitution has left it entirely to another branch to decide. Its view of such issues may change over time, however.

remedy

A judicial order setting forth what must be done to correct a situation a judge believes to be wrong.

Section 1983 case

A provision in the U.S. Code which allows a citizen to sue state and local government officials who have deprived the citizen of some constitutional right or withheld some benefit to which the citizen is entitled. If the citizen wins, he or she can collect money damages and lawyers' fees from the government.

senatorial courtesy

The tradition by which the Senate will not confirm a district court judge if the senator who is from that state and of the president's party objects.

solicitor general

The third-ranking officer in the Justice Department, who decides what cases the federal government will appeal from lower courts and personally approves every case the government presents to the Supreme Court.

sovereign immunity

A legal concept that forbids a person from suing the government without its consent. Congress has given its consent for the government to be sued in many cases involving disputes over contracts or damage done as a result of negligence.

standing

A legal concept that refers to who is entitled to bring a case. Three basic rules govern standing. First, there must be an actual controversy between real adversaries. Second, the person bringing suit must show that he or she has been harmed by the law or practice involved in the complaint. Third, merely being a taxpayer does not entitle a person to challenge the constitutionality of a governmental action.

stare decisis

An informal rule of judicial decision making in which judges try to follow precedent in deciding cases. That is, a court case today should be settled in accordance with prior decisions on similar cases.

strict constructionist approach

An approach to judicial review which holds that judges should confine themselves to applying those rules that are stated in or clearly implied by the language of the Constitution.

Supreme Court of the United States

highest court in the federal judiciary specifically created by the Constitution. It is composed of nine justices and has appellate jurisdiction over lower federal courts and the highest state courts. It also possesses a limited original jurisdiction.

swing bloc

One of three groups of justices in the 1970s and 1980s that vacillated between liberal and conservative voting positions.

writ of certiorari

An order issued by the Supreme Court granting a hearing to an appeal. A vote of four justices is needed to issue the writ. Only about 3 or 4 percent of all appeals are accepted.

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