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The Courts


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American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit interest group with approximately 275,000 members dedicated to preserving the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
In an appellate court, to reach a decision that agrees with the decision reached in a lower court.
amicus curiae brief
A brief is a document filed with a court containing a legal argument supporting a desired outcome in a particular case. An amicus curiae brief is filed by a party not directly involved in the litigation but with an interest in the outcome of the case.
appellate court
A court that hears appeals on points of law decided by trial courts.
appellate jurisdiction
Authority of a court to review legal decisions by a lower court.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
The US Supreme Court decision establishing that segreation of the races in public schools violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
certiorari (cert)
A writ (request) from a higher court to a lower court to send up a case's record so that the higher court can review it. Most cases come to the Supreme Court in this manner instead of through an appeal. A party must petition a court to issue a writ of certiorari, and fewer than five percent of the petitions are granted.
civil law
The law regulating conduct and allowing for the settelment of disputes between private persons over noncriminal matters such as contracts, domestic relations, and business relations.
class-action suit
A lawsuit filed by an individual seeking damages for himself and for "all persons similarly situated".
common law
A system of law originating in England in which judges make decisions according to prevailing customs. Decisions are applied to similar situations and thus gradually become common to the nation. Common law forms the basis of legal procedures in the US.
concurring opinion
A seperate statement, prepared by a judge who supports the decision of the majority of the court, but who wants to clarify a point or to voice disapproval of the grounds on which the decision was made.
constitutional law
Law that involves the interpretation and application of the Constitution
courts of appeals
Courts of appeals are the intermediate federal appellate courts. These decide appeals from federal district courts and from administrative agencies.
criminal law
The collection of laws defining crimes and establishing punishment for violations. The government prosecutes criminal cases because crimes are against the public order.
The party against which a criminal legal action is being brought.
discretionary jurisdiction
Discretionary jurisdiction is court jurisdiction that may or may not be exercised by the court. The Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction, in particular, is discretionary. This means the Court can decline to decide a case that comes to it on appeal from a lower federal or state court.
dissenting opinion
A seperate opinion in which a judge explains his or her views about a case, in dissent from the majority opinion or conclusion reached by the majority of the court.
district courts
District courts are the trial courts of original jurisdiction in the federal system. The vast majority of federal cases begin and end in these courts.
Dred Scott v. sandford (1857)
A case that held that African Americans could not be considered persons under the Constitution nor were they entitled to the rights and privileges of citizenship.
federal circuit court of appeal
A special court established by Congress in 1982 to be on the same footign as teh existing 12 Courts of Appeals but with nationwide jurisdiction based on subject matter rather than geographic area. It covers, in particular, business, trade, and civil service.
federal court system
The court system of the federal government. It is divided into three levels. The bottom level is made up of 94 federal district courts. At the next level are 13 federal circuit courts of appeal. The top level is the Supreme Court.
grand jury
A jury of 12 to 23 people called to weight evidence and determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a trial agains someone suspected of committing serious crime. Grand juries meet in private. If a majority believes there is enough evidence, the grand jury presents a "true bill" and hte suspect is indicted and held for trial.
judicial activism
A doctrine holding that judges should take an active role in making decisions that lead to socially desirable ends, primarily by exercsing the power of judicial rreview. Others feel judges should show restraint and allow the legislative and executive branches to do this, since judges are not elected officials accountable to the voters.
judicial implementation
How court decisions are turned into actions.
judicial restraint
A doctrine holding that judges should not take an active role in making decisions that lead to socially desirable ends. Instead, judges should restrain their own opinions and defer policy decisions to legislators and the executive branch-elected officials who are accountable voters.
judicial review
The power of courts to judge legislative or executive acts unconstitutional. All national and state courts hold this power, though the highest state of federal court usually makes the final decision. Judicial review is not mentioned in the Constitution. The Supreme Court claimed this power in Marbury v. Madison (1803).
A court's authority to decide certain cases. Not all courts have the authority to decide all cases. Two factors that decide what court jurisdiction for a case are 1) its subject matter; and 2) where the case originated.
justiciable dispute
A question or dispute that's appropriate for settling in the judicial branch of government. Some disputes may be ruled "political," and therefore more appropriate for consideration by the legislative or executive branches.
lifetime appointment
A length of term in office granted to most federal jusges as required by Constitution. Once appointed, these judges can stay in office as long as they wish. Judges are granted lifetime appointments in order to free them from partisan battles and the possibility that hte fear of losing their jobs will influence their legal decisions.
A party engaged in lawsuit.
To take part in a legal action or attempt to settle dispute in a court of law.
majority opinion
A written statemennt, prepared by an appellate court, that states the opinion of the majority of the judges who heard the case. A majority opinion explains the rules of law that relate to the case, advises lower courts on how to proceed, and justifies the ruling to the public. The majority opinion may be accompanied by a dissenting opinion, which disagrees with the ruling.
mandatory jurisdiction
Is court jurisdiction that must be exercised by the court that possesses it. This usually involves trial courts which must decide those cases brought to them over which they have juridiction, and appellate courts which have been given mandatory jurisdiction over appeals.
Maybury v. Madison (1803)
This cast that struck down for the first time in US history an act of Congress as unconstitutional. It declared the Constitution to be supreme law of the land, and that it is " the duty of the justice department to say what the law is."
oral argument
The verbal arguments presented in person by attorneys to an appellate court. Each attorney presents reasons why the court should rule in his clients favor.
original jurisdiction
Thr authority of a court to hear a case in the first instance. Usually courts of original jurisdiction are minor courts or trial courts.
The part that initiates a suit in court.
political question
A question that a court feels is more appropriately dealt with by the executive or legislative branch of government, and is inappropriate for judicial consideration.
A previous court ruling that bears on a later court decision in a similar or related case. Lawyers try to persuade judges that certain precedents should be considered in deciding a case. It is the judge's role to determine which precedent applies most directly. Courts are free, however, to overrule a precedent and establish a new one.
Rehnquist Court
The period (1986 to P) during which William H. Rehnquist has served as Cheif Justice of the Supreme Court
Sending a legal case back to the court that heard it previously.
To nullify or invalidate a legal judgment.
rule of four
A procedure that requires four votes in favoring of hearing a case before the entire Supreme Court.
senatorial courtesy
A senate tradition under which the Senate will almost always reject a presidential nominee for federal office within a state if the senator from that state and of the president's party objects.
stare decisis
Court policy to follow precedents established in past cases: to stand on decided cases.
state court
Each of the 50 states has its own courts with jurisdiction over all cases that arise under its own laws. The state court system is organized in a similar fashion to the federal court system.
A law enacted by Congress or by a state legislature.
statutory law
Law passed by a legislative body.
The examination of a civil or criminal action in accordance with the law of the land before a judge who has jurisdiction.
trial court
The court in which most cases usually begin and end which questions of fact are examined.
US Supreme Court
The court of last resort in the federal system. Most states also have courts of last resort.
unanimous opinion
A legal opinion or determination that all the judges agree with.
Warren Court
The Supreme Court when Earl Warren was Chief Justice. It was known for its judicial activism.

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