Glossary of legal terms


Amicus curiae
A person who is not a party of a lawsuit but who petitions the court or is requested by the court to file a brief in the action because that person has a strong interest in the subject matter. (Often shortened to amicus or friend of the court.)
[Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

A request for a higher court to review the determination of a lower court.

A party who appeals a lower court’s decision, usually seeking reversal of that decision.
[Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

Appellate court
(or Appeals court) Appellate courts are where appeals of decisions made in lower courts are decided. These courts have the power to review questions of law that arise from judgments made in lower courts. In 39 states, there are two types of appellate courts: intermediate appellate courts and supreme courts. The other states have only one level of appellate court to review trial court decisions (see Supreme Court).

Appellee A party against whom an appeal is taken and whose role is to respond to that appeal, usually seeking to uphold the lower court’s decision. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]


Confirmation The formal approval by a legislature of a person nominated for office (such as a judgeship).

Court of appeals
See Appellate court

Court-stripping See jurisdiction-stripping


Decisional independence
The ability of a judge to issue a decision based on the individual facts and applicable law of a case without improper influences such as political considerations, campaign contributions or personal beliefs.

A person sued in a civil proceeding or accused in a criminal proceeding. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]


Habeas Corpus
Lat. (You have the body). The name given to a variety of writs (of which these were anciently the emphatic words), having as their object to bring a party before a party or judge. The primary function of the writ is to release from unlawful imprisonment. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]


Being impartial means that a judge applies the law to everyone in the same way, not favoring one side or the other.

Institutional independence
The ability of the judiciary to function independently from the executive and legislative branches of government.


Judicial activism
A philosophy of decision-making whereby judges allow their personal views about public policy, among other factors, to guide their decisions, usually with the suggestion that adherents of this philosophy tend to find constitutional violations and are willing to ignore precedent.
[Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

Judicial appointment
Rather than through elections, in some states judges are appointed by an executive like a governor or a mayor, with or without confirmation by a legislative body or appointed by the legislature.

Judicial independence
The principle that courts and judges should be able to exercise their judicial responsibilities free of improper influences and pressures. For more information, click here.

The removal of certain types of cases from a court’s jurisdiction by a legislative or executive action, or through a ballot measure, in an attempt to prevent the court from ruling on issues that arise in those cases. Jurisdiction-stripping is sometimes called “court-stripping.”


Merit Selection
Merit selection is the most commonly used term referring to a method of selecting state court judges through a nominating commission process. The nominating commission recommends candidates to the appointing authority (usually a state governor) for final appointment, which may be subject to legislative confirmation. Additional terms are achieved through retention election or reappointment.


Nominating commission
In a merit selection system, a non-partisan or bi-partisan panel of lawyers and non-lawyers solicits applications for judicial vacancies, interviews applicants, evaluates professional qualifications, and recommends a list of suitable candidates to the appointing authority, usually the governor. Some nominating commissions are composed entirely of people chosen by public officials; others also include members chosen by bar associations.

The formal submission of a candidate for a public office (like a judgeship); nominees must be confirmed by a legislature.

Nonpartisan election
System of judicial selection in which voters elect judges for an initial term of office, after which time they are eligible to run for reelection. Candidates do not run as members of political parties.


Partisan election
System of judicial selection in which voters elect judges for an initial term of office, after which time they are eligible to run for reelection. Those seeking office run as candidates of political parties.

A party who presents a petition to a court or other official body, especially when seeking relief on appeal. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

The party who brings a civil suit in a court of law. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

Pro Bono
Lat. (For the good); used to describe work or services (e.g. legal services) done or performed free of charge. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

Pro Se
Lat. (For one’s own behalf; in person). Appearing for one’s self, as in the case of a person who does not retain a lawyer and who appears for himself in court.
[Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

Public financing of judicial campaigns
In this system, public funds replace private contributions in financing judicial campaigns, in whole or in part. Under a full public financing system, judicial candidates who qualify for public funds receive sufficient financing for their campaigns provided they agree not to accept any private contributions and obey spending limits established by the state. Candidates who do not choose public financing are allowed to raise private contributions and are not subject to spending limits.


The party against whom an appeal is taken. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

Retention election
Election held at the end of a term in which a judge runs unopposed and must win at least a majority of the “yes” votes cast to be retained in office.


Strict construction
The doctrinal view of judicial construction holding that judges should interpret a document or statute according to its literal terms, without looking to other sources to ascertain the meaning. [Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th ed. 1999]

Supreme court
In most states, and in the federal judiciary, the highest court in the court system is known as the Supreme Court. (In a few states, it is known by another name, as noted below.) It is the “court of last resort,” and has the power to review decisions made by all other, “lower” courts in the court system. Usually, a supreme court decides errors in application of the law, errors made in judicial interpretations of the law, or procedural errors; however, it occasionally may be required to review facts. The Supreme Court of the United States hears appeals from cases in the lower federal courts, and sometimes hears cases from state courts, including decisions rendered by state supreme courts.

Note: In New York, the “Supreme Court” is the state’s trial court of general jurisdiction, which hears most types of basic cases; the state’s highest court is called the Court of Appeals. In Maryland, the highest court is also called the Court of Appeals; there is no court in the Maryland system called the “Supreme Court.”


Term of office
The length of time a judge can serve before stepping down or being reappointed or reelected. Some systems provide life tenure, or mandate retirement by a certain age. Judges can generally be removed before their terms end, however, for misconduct or other good cause, and judges in some states can be recalled by the voters.

A court’s process of resolving a dispute according to the applicable laws and evidence presented. (An appeal can occur after a decision is reached at trial.)

Trial court
The court where a trial is held. Sometimes referred to as a Circuit Court, District Court, Superior Court, County Court, Court of Common Pleas. (An appeal of a trial is held in an Appellate court.)


A formal written order issued by a body with administrative or judicial jurisdiction. In modern usage, this public body is normally a court. Warrants, prerogative writs, and subpoenas are types of writs, but there are many others.