Legal Terms for Reading the News

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As investigations, hearings, and trials flood the news media, a short glossary of legal terms may be useful to readers.

Anyone who has watched enough Law & Order episodes probably already knows quite a few legal terms, such as warrant, subpeona, voir dire, and mens rea. Here are some terms and examples from recent news stories.

accomplice: A partner in a crime; a person who knowingly and voluntarily participates with another in a criminal activity.

[T]he primary subject of these discussions is what credible evidence can these two accomplices [Parnas and Fruman] deliver about Giuliani.

amicus curiae: Latin for “friend of the court.” It is advice formally offered to the court in a brief filed by an entity interested in, but not a party to, the case.

Amicus curiae participation is a staple of interest group activity in the US Supreme Court.

Assault: Threat to inflict injury with an apparent ability to do so. Also, any intentional display of force that would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm.

Evan Neumann was indicted on charges of assaulting law enforcement during the January 6 Capitol breach.

Certiorari: A means of getting an appellate court to review a lower court’s decision when it is not required to do so. Usually refers to a request for the Supreme Court to review a decision of the Court of Appeals.

Cert. Denied: Stands for “certiorari denied”; a writ of certiorari is a discretionary method by which a superior court chooses the cases it wishes to hear. “Cert. denied” means that the court has decided not to hear the case.

Thomas dissented from the court’s denial of certiorari. “I would grant certiorari in this case to revisit the ‘actual malice’ standard.”

Conspiracy: an agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act, along with an intent to achieve the agreement’s goal.

The jury began deliberations today in the federal sex-trafficking and conspiracy trial of Ghislaine Maxwell.

Criminal Contempt: A criminal contempt is an act done in disrespect of the court or its process or which obstructs the administration of justice or tends to bring the court into disrepute.

Stephen K. Bannon was indicted today by a federal grand jury on two counts of contempt of Congress stemming from his failure to comply with a subpoena issued by the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 breach of the US Capitol.

Defamation: That which tends to injure a person’s reputation. Libel is published defamation, whereas slander is spoken.

A jury has found both Amber Heard and Johnny Depp liable for defamation in their lawsuits against each other.

de jure: Latin, meaning “in law.” Something that exists by operation of law.

de facto: Latin, meaning “in fact” or “actually.” Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.

In many countries around the world the legal frameworks themselves allow for both direct (de jure) and indirect (de facto) discrimination against women.

Disbarment: Form of discipline of a lawyer resulting in the loss (often permanently) of that lawyer’s right to practice law. It is more severe than censure (an official reprimand or condemnation) and suspension (a temporary loss of the right to practice law.)

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggested in an August 15 that Giuliani should be disbarred in every state for spreading “fake news” and lying about the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Ex parte: A proceeding brought before a court by one party only, without notice to or challenge by the other side.

US District Judge Amit Mehta admonished former Trump aide Peter Navarro for sending ex parte emails to his chambers.

felony: A serious crime, usually punishable by at least one year in prison.

misdemeanor: An offense punishable by not more than one year in county jail and/or $1,000 fine.

While half the defendants face felony charges, nearly 90 percent of pleas involve misdemeanors.

grand jury: A body of 16-23 citizens who listen to evidence of criminal allegations, which is presented by the prosecutors, and determine whether there is probable cause to believe an individual committed an offense.

The Atlanta area prosecutor weighing whether former president Donald Trump and others committed crimes by trying to pressure Georgia election officials has been granted a special purpose grand jury to aid in her investigation.

indictment: The formal charge issued by a grand jury stating that there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to justify having a trial; it is used primarily for felonies.

The Special Investigations Section of the Tennessee Department of Revenue conducted the investigation that led to the indictment and arrest of Frank Wayne Tipton for tax evasion.

mens rea: The particular state of mind required to make an action criminal; a criminal state of mind; (more generally) criminal intent. Mens rea usually requires that to be criminally culpable, a person must have intended to commit the prohibited act, whether or not he knew it was prohibited.

[Commenting on cases of children left to die in hot cars] “There always has to be some mens rea, some knowledge, intent, awareness,” said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in the Bronx”.

nolo contendere: No contest. A plea of nolo contendere has the same effect as a plea of guilty, as far as the criminal sentence is concerned, but may not be considered as an admission of guilt for any other purpose.

In court today, San Nicolas pleaded no contest to the charges [of rape] through a nolo contendere plea agreement.

pro se: Representing oneself. Serving as one’s own lawyer

[Navarro] declared before US Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui that day that he would likely represent himself pro se because “I don’t want to spend my retirement savings on lawyers.”

subpoena: A command, issued under a court’s authority, to a witness to appear and give testimony.

Washington Commanders owner Daniel Snyder has refused a subpoena to appear before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

subpoena duces tecum: A command to a witness to appear and produce documents.

On May 16, 2012, the Subcommittee met in open session for the purpose of authorizing and issuing a subpoena duces tecum to compel the production of records from HUD related to its oversight and administration of the HOME Investment Partnerships Program.

voir dire: Jury selection process of questioning prospective jurors, to ascertain their qualifications and determine any basis for challenge.

Judges, trial lawyers, the lay public, and jurors themselves acknowledge that the prospective jurors who arrive in the courtroom for voir dire have all manner of life experiences and preexisting attitudes, some of which may be relevant to the trial at hand and others that are inconsequential.

warrant: Court authorization, most often for law enforcement officers, to conduct a search or make an arrest.

A search warrant was also issued for the party’s secretary, James DeGraffenreid, who had taken part in the scheme as an elector as well, the news outlet reported.

willful ignorance/willful blindness: A decision in bad faith to avoid becoming informed about something so as to avoid having to make undesirable decisions that such information might prompt.

The country is divided into two groups. The first thinks Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) practiced willful blindness to rationalize her votes confirming Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch.

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3 thoughts on “Legal Terms for Reading the News”

  1. Penn,
    I could have sworn I’d included stare decisis AND writ of certiorari. They are in my notes, but somehow managed to slip out of the final post.
    I did not think of kangaroo court. I’m still hoping it doesn’t belong in US jurisprudence.

  2. Given what is current in the news, *kangaroo court* probably would be good to cover, and to distinguish from *show trial*. Both terms are being tossed around as if they are synonymous, but they really are not. A kangaroo court lacks official legitimacy or legitimate procedure. Something akin to a lynch mob (but still, not synonymous). A show trial is arguably worse– a proceeding with official imprimatur conducted with a pre-determined conclusion, without genuine participation by the defendant. What detractors accuse the January 6 hearings of being is a show trial, not a kangaroo court. Regardless of its motives, it is legally constituted and has defined procedures. Of course, whether it actually is a show trial is a separate question.

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