Glossary of Legal Terms


acquit - To find a defendant not guilty in a criminal trial.
adjudication - A judgment or decree.
affidavit - A written or printed declaration or statement under oath.
affirm - The ruling of an appellate court that the judgment of a lower court is correct and should stand.
appeal - Review of a case by a higher court.
appellant - Party appealing a decision or judgment to a higher court.
appellee - The party against whom an appeal is filed.
arbitration - The hearing and settlement of a dispute between opposing parties by a third party whose decision the parties have agreed to accept.
arraignment - A court hearing in a criminal case where a defendant is advised of the charges and asked to plead guilty or not guilty. Most arraignments in Tennessee are held in General Sessions Court.


bail bond - An agreement by a third party to pay a certain sum of money if the defendant fails to appear in court.
bench trial - Trial held before judge sitting without a jury; jury waived trial.
bench warrant - Process issued by the court or “from the bench” for the attachment or arrest of a person.
binding over - The act by which a court or magistrate requires a person to enter into a recognizance or furnish bail to appear for trial, to keep the peace, to attend as a witness, etc. Also describes act of lower court in transferring case to higher court or to grand jury after a finding of probable cause to believe that defendant committed crime.
brief - A legal document, prepared by an attorney, which presents the law and facts supporting his or her client.


caseload - The number of cases a judge handles.
cause of action - A legal claim.
certiorari - A procedure for removing a case from a lower court to a higher court for review.
change of venue - Moving a case from one court, or location, to another.
civil law - All law that is not criminal law.
class - There are five classifications of felonies and three classifications of misdemeanors. With the exception of murder in the first degree, all felonies in the Revised Criminal Code, in the old Title 39 and in titles other than Title 39 are classified. Each felony has an A, B, C, D, or E classification. “A” is the most serious and “E” is the least serious. Each misdemeanor has either an A, B, or C classification with “A” being most serious and “C” being least serious. Murder in the first degree carries three possible penalties: life (with the possibility of parole), life without parole, and death.
code - A collection of laws promulgated by legislative authority.
common law - A system of jurisprudence based on precedent rather than statutory laws.
commutation - Change of punishment from a greater to a lesser degree or ending a sentence that has been partially served.
corpus delicti - The body or material substance upon which crime has been committed; e.g., the corpse of a murdered person or the charred remains of a burned house.


de novo - “Anew.” A trial de novo is a completely new trial.
declaratory judgment - A judgment declaring the rights of the parties on a question of law.
decree - Decision or order of the court. A final decree completes the suit; an interlocutory decree is provisional or preliminary.
default judgment - Under Rules of Civil Procedure, when a party against whom a judgment for affirmative relief is sought has failed to plead (i.e., answer) or otherwise defend, he is in default and a judgment by default may be entered either by the clerk or the court.
defendant - A person charged with a crime or a person against whom a civil action is brought.
deposition - Sworn testimony taken outside the courtroom according to the rules of the court.
discovery - A pretrial proceeding where a party to an action may be informed of the facts known by other parties or witnesses.
docket - Book containing entries of all proceedings in a court.
double jeopardy - Prohibition against more than one prosecution for the same crime.
due process - Constitutional guarantee that an accused person receives a fair and impartial trial.


en banc - “On the bench.” All judges of a court sitting together to hear a case.
et al. - Abbreviation of the Latin "et alter", meaning: “and others.”
ex parte - A proceeding brought for the benefit of one party only without notice to or challenge by an adverse party.


felony - A serious criminal offense for which the minimum sentence is one year.


grand jury - A panel of citizens sworn to inquire into crime and if appropriate bring accusations, or indictments, against the suspects.
guardian ad litem - A person appointed by a court to manage the interests of a minor or incompetent person whose property is involved in litigation.


habeas corpus - “Latin phrase meaing: You have the body.” A writ of habeas corpus requires that a person be brought before a judge. It is usually used to direct an official to produce a prisoner so the court may determine if liberty has been denied without due process.


indictment - Written accusation of a grand jury charging a crime.
injunction - Court orders prohibiting specific actions from being carried out.
interrogatories - Written questions which must be answered under oath.


judgment - Final determination by a court.
judgment document - Document that explains the sentence an offender receives from a trial court.
jurisprudence - The science of law.


limited jurisdiction - Courts limited in the types of criminal and civil cases they may hear.
litigant - Person or group engaged in a lawsuit.


misdemeanor - Criminal offense that is less than a felony and punishable by less than a year in jail.
mitigating circumstances - Do not justify or excuse an offense, but may be considered as reasons for reducing the degree of blame.
motion - Oral or written request before, during or after a trial on which a court issues a ruling or order.
moot - Unsettled or undecided.


negligence - The absence of ordinary care.
nolo contendere - Latin phrase meaning “I will not contest it”; a plea in a criminal case which has a similar legal effect as pleading guilty. A defendant may plead nolo contendere only with the consent of the court.


opinion, per curiam - Phrase used to distinguish an opinion of the whole court from an opinion written by only one judge.


parole - The conditional and revocable release of an inmate by the Board of Paroles to parole supervision.
peremptory challenge - Procedure for rejecting prospective jurors without a reason. Each side is permitted a limited number of peremptory challenges.
power of attorney - Document authorizing another to act as one’s agent or attorney in fact (not an attorney at law).
probable cause - Reasonable belief that a crime has been committed; the basis for all lawful searches.
probate - The legal process of establishing the validity of a will and settling an estate.
probation - A sentence of confinement which is suspended upon a term of probation supervision. It may include community service or restitution or both. Probation must automatically be considered if the defendant is eligible.
pro bono - Legal services provided without attorney fees.
pro se - Legal representation of oneself
pro tem - “Temporary.”


recess - A short interval during which court suspends business, but without adjourning.
remand - To send back.


sentence, concurrent - Two or more sentences which run at the same time.
sentence, consecutive - Two or more sentences which run one after another.
sentence, determinate - A sentence that states exactly the time to be served or money to be paid.
sequester a jury - To place members of a jury into 24 hour a day seclusion until a verdict is reached.
settlement conference - A meeting between parties of a lawsuit, their attorneys and a judge to attempt a resolution of the dispute without a trial.
statute - A law created by the Legislature.
stay - Halting a judicial proceeding by order of the court.
subpoena - A written legal notice requiring a person to appear in court and give testimony or produce documentary evidence.
subpoena duces tecum - “Under penalty you shall take it with you.” A process by which the court commands a witness to produce specific documents or records in a trial.


tort - An injury or wrong committed with or without force to the person or property of another giving rise to a claim for damages.


venue - The specific county, city or geographical area in which a court has jurisdiction.
voir dire - (pronounced “vwar-deer”) - “To speak the truth.” The process of preliminary examination of prospective jurors regarding their qualifications.


writ - A written court order directing a person to perform or refrain from performing a specific act.
writ of mandamus - An order issued by a court of superior jurisdiction commanding performance of a particular act by an inferior court or public official.