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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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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