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equal justice under the law

all who appear in court must be treated as equals.

substantative due process

deals with the question of whether laws are fair.

adversarial system

principle based on the premise that the best way to work out questions of fact is to have two sides (adversaries) debate the burden of guilt or liability in a situation.

presumption of innocence

Innocent until proven guilty. Bedrock principle of legal system. Burden of proof is always on the prosecutor in criminal cases.

civil law

determines disputes over things like contracts, property, custody of kids, or an issue of liability.

criminal law

Deals with serious crimes that harm individuals or society.

grand jury

a group of 24 to 48 jurors who decide only one thing...whether a trial should commence. Indict criminals.

plea bargains

negotiated agreements in criminal cases in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty in return for the state's agreement to reduce the severity of the criminal charge the defendant is facing

reasonable doubt

Burden of proof in criminal law.


The parties negotiate and the issue becomes how much each party is willing to give up to end the lawsuit. If this cannot be reached, a civil case goes to trial.

preponderance of evidence

burden of proof in civil law. 51% of the evidence points your way.

original jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of courts that hear a case first, usually in a trial. These are the courts that determine the facts about a case.

appellate jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of courts that hear cases brought to them on appeal from lower courts. These courts do not review the factual record, only the legal issues involved.

senatorial courtesy

Senators in a state where an appointee will sit have traditionally exercised this, where they submit a list of acceptable names of nominees to the president. Presidents usually choose a nominee from the list of names.

judicial restraint

Philosophy proposing that judges should interpret the Constitution to reflect what the framers intended and what its words literally say, A judicial philosophy in which judges play minimal policymaking roles, leaving that duty strictly to the legislatures

judicial activism

Philosophy proposing that judges should interpret the Constitution to reflect current conditions and values, A judicial philosophy in which judges make bold policy decisions, even charting new constitutional ground. Advocates of this approach emphasize that the courts can correct pressing needs, especially those unmet by the majoritarian political process.

judicial review

review by a court of law of actions of a government official or entity or of some other legally appointed person or body or the review by an appellate court of the decision of a trial court

writ of certiorari

if four justices on the supreme court agree to a review, they issue this to request the transcripts of a case.


cases that are real and adverse, the case must involve an actual legal dispute.


the right of an individual or an organization to initiate a court case


documents given to a court by the attorneys trying a case. These documents contain summaries of the issues in the case, the laws relevant to the case, and the arguments which support the position taken by the attorney on behalf of his or her client.

amicus curiae

literally, "friend of the court"; individuals or groups who are not parties to a lawsuit but who seek to assist the Supreme Court in reaching a decision by presenting additional briefs

oral arguments

The verbal arguments presented in person by attorneys to an appellate court. Each attorney presents reasons to the court why the court should rule in her or his client's favor.

unanimous opinion

a court opinion or determination on which all judges agree

majority opinion

a statement that presents the views of the majority of supreme court justices regarding a case

concurring opinion

a signed opinion in which one or more members agree with the majority view but for different reasons

dissenting opinion

a statement written by a justice who disagrees with the majority opinion, presenting his or her opinion

due process

the administration of justice according to established rules and principles

procedural due process

deals with the question of whether laws are fairly applied.

petit juries

traditional juries. Criminal trials are held before them, composed of 12 people.

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