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criminal law

the branch of law that deals with disputes or actions involving criminal penalties (as opposed to civil law). It regulates the conduct of individuals, defines crimes, and provides punishment for criminal acts


the individual or organization that brings a complaint to court


the individual or organization charged with a complaint in court

civil law

a system of jurisprudence, including private law and governmental actions, for settling disputes that do not involve criminal penalties


prior cases whose principles are used by judges as the bases for their decisions in present cases

stare decisis

Literally, "let the decision stand." The doctrine whereby a previous decision by a court applies as a precedent in similar cases until that decision is overruled

public law

cases involving the action of public agencies or officials

trial court

the first court to hear a ciminal or civil case

court of appeals

a court that hears the appeals of trial-court decisions

supreme court

the highest court in a particular state or in the United States. This court primarily serves an appellate function

due process

the guarentee that no citizen may be subjected to arbitrart action by national or state government

writ of habeas corpus

a court order demanding that an individual in custody by brought to court and shown the cause for detention. Habeas corpus os guarenteed by the constitution and can be suspected only in cases of rebellion and invasion

cheif justice

the justice on the supreme court who presides over the court's public session

senatorial courtesy

the practice whereby the president, before fornally nominating a person for a federal judgeship, finds out whether the senators from that state support the nomination

judicial review

the power of the courts to declare actions of the legislative and executive branch invalid or unconstitutional. The Supreme Court asserted this power in Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Supremacy Clause

A clause of Article VI of the constitution that states that all laws passed by the national government and all treaties are the supreme laws of the land and superior to all laws adopted by any state or any subdivision


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


a criterion used by courts to avoid hearing cases that no longer require a resolution

writ of certiorari

a formal request by an appellant to have the Supreme Court review a decision of a lower court. Certiorari is from a Latin word meaning "to make more certain"

amicus curiae

"Friend of the court," an individual or group who is no party to a lawsuit but seeks to assist the court in reaching a decision by presenting an additional brief


written documents in which attorneys explain - using case precedents - why the court should rule in favor of their client

oral argument

the stage in Supreme Court proceedings in which attorneys for both sides appear before the court to present their positions and answer questions posed by the justices


the written explanation of the Supreme Court's decision in a particular case

regular concurrence

a concurring opinion that agrees with the outcome and the majority's rationale but highlights a specific legal point

special concurrence

a concurring opinion that agrees with the outcome but disagrees with the rationale presented by the majority opinion

dissenting opinion

a decision written by a justice who voted with the majority opinion in a particular case, in which the justice fully explains the reasoning behind his or her opinion

judicial restraint

the judicial philosophy whereby its adherents refuse to go beyonf the text of the constitution in interpreting its meaning

judicial activism

the judicial philosophy that posits that the court should see beyond the text of the constitution or a statute to consider broader societal implications for its decision

rule of four

the rule that certiorari will be granted only if four justices vote in favor of the petition

class action suit

a lawsuit in which a large number of persons with common interests joing together under a representative party to bring or defend a lawsuit, as when hundreds of workers join together to sue a company

dispute resolution

court serves as a venus in which the facts of a case are established, punishment is meted out to violaters, and compensation is awarded to victims (After-the-Fact)


anticipation of legal consequences allows private parties to form rational expectations and thereby coordinate their actions in advance of possible disputes (Before-the-Fact)

rule interpretation

courts must interpret statutes for relevance and use in cases and decisions

solicitor general

3rd in status in the Department of Justice; top government lawyer om virtually all cases before apellate courts in which the government is a party; screens cases before the supreme court

law clerk

each justice has 4 law clerks to research legal issues and assist with the preparation of opinions and screen petitions for writs of certiorari

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