Legal Glossary

Legal Glossary

Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), also known as Alien Tort Statute (ATS) – The Alien Tort Claims Act is a federal statute from 1789 that allows foreign victims of international human rights abuses to sue the perpetrators in U.S. courts.

Amicus brief/amicus curiae –Latin term meaning "friend of the court." A brief filed with the court by someone who is not a party to the case that addresses a related legal issue.

Appeal – An application to have a lower court decision reviewed by a higher court.

Appellant – Any party making an appeal to a higher court or tribunal.

Appellee – The respondent in an appeal.

Attorney-client privilege – The privilege of a client to keep certain communications with his or her attorney confidential, where those communications relate to legal advice. Based upon this privilege, an attorney must protect confidential information about his or her client, and refrain from disclosing information the client has given in confidence.

Bona-fide occupational qualification (BFOQ)
– A statutory provision which allows for discrimination in employment if certain requirements are met. The burden of proof is placed on the employer, requiring it to show that “religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.”

Class action – A legal proceeding in which persons representing common interests with a large group participate as representatives of the group or class.

Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) – Set up by the Bush Administration following the Rasul v. Bush Supreme Court ruling, CSRTs are military tribunals which have been held at Guantanamo Bay to establish whether detainees are “properly detained” as “enemy combatants.” A CSRT differs greatly from the criminal justice system in that it does not provide suspects with certain basic legal rights, such as the presumption of innocence, access to a lawyer, or the right to know the charges against them. Nor are CSRTs equivalent to field hearings under Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention.

Complicit – A theory of liability that extends legal liability beyond the direct perpetrator of an illegal act to others who have participated in the commission of the act.

Declaratory relief – A judge's determination (called a "declaratory judgment") of the parties' rights under a contract, statute or the Constitution.

Defendant – A person or entity, including corporations, in a court case, against whom charges or claims have been bought.

Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) – Passed by Congress in 2005, the Act prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners and requires military interrogators to abide by the military Field Manual FM 34-52 (a 177-page manual that describes how to conduct effective interrogations under US and international law), but does not expressly prohibit the CSRTs from considering evidence obtained by torture and other unlawful coercion. According to the government, the Act also prohibits aliens detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison from applying for a writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court – a claim that the detainees dispute.

Discovery – A stage in a case in which both parties are able to compel the release of facts or documents relating to the case.

Docket – A list of filings (i.e., motions, responses, briefs) in a case.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces all Civil Rights, age discrimination and equal pay laws. The EEOC also provides oversight and coordination of all federal equal employment opportunity regulations, practices, and policies.

Extraordinary rendition – The forced transfer of a person from one country to another for arbitrary detention and interrogation under torture. Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has used extraordinary rendition to covertly transport an estimated 150 persons—and possibly more—for detention and interrogation without judicial oversight as part of the so-called “war on terror.” Victims of extraordinary rendition are sent to countries where torture is routinely practiced on detainees. Also known as “outsourcing torture”.

Felony disenfranchisement – The practice of prohibiting people from voting because they have been convicted of a felony, thereby restricting universal suffrage.

Fifth Amendment of the Constitution
– This Amendment provides citizens the right to a trial by Grand Jury in cases of serious, or “infamous,” crimes, the right to due process of law, freedom from being convicted of the same offence twice (“double jeopardy”), and freedom from being forced to give evidence against themselves (“the right to remain silent”).

First Amendment of the Constitution – This Amendment prohibits the government from making laws that establish religion or prohibit free exercise of religion, infringe the freedom of speech, infringe the freedom of the press, limit the right to assemble peaceably, or limit the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) – Passed by Congress in 1978, the Act defined the extent to which the Executive could carry out wiretapping, electronic surveillance, document tracing and other forms of surveillance between or among “foreign powers.” The act was amended under the PATRIOT Act in 2001, the Terrorist Surveillance Act in 2006, and the Protect America Act in 2007. In all cases, the power of the Executive to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance programs was expanded. Under the Protect America Act in 2007, the requirements for judicial oversight of such programs were reduced or removed entirely, and the bill was expanded to cover not just communication between “foreign powers” but any communication in which one person is reasonably believed to be outside the United States.

Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) – Passed by Congress in 1976, the Act prescribes a series of requirements that have to be met before foreign sovereign nations, or their agents or instrumentalities, could be sued in U.S. courts.

Forum non conveniens – A doctrine allowing a court with jurisdiction over a case to dismiss it if it would be more convenient for the parties for the case to be brought to a court having proper jurisdiction in another venue.

Fourth Amendment of the Constitution – This Amendment provides freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The amendment also requires that warrants for search and/or seizure only be issued upon “probable cause” – broadly meaning that there must be a reasonable expectation that justice will somehow be served as a result of the search or seizure.

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - A 1966 law requiring government agencies to release their records to the public upon request, unless the information sought needs to be kept secret to preserve national security, an individual's right to privacy, or internal agency management. If the government agency does not comply, an individual or group can sue for the release of records.

Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) – The same as above, but on the state level in many states.

Geneva Conventions - A key source of international humanitarian law that sets out legal safeguards that govern the way wars may be fought and the protection of individuals in times of armed conflict. The Four Conventions were adopted in 1949 and cover the treatment of the sick and wounded armed forces, prisoners of war and civilians. Among their many provisions, Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions (“Common Article 3”) sets out the minimum protections that must apply including the prohibition against torture and “humiliating and degrading treatment,” and the passing of sentences by irregularly constituted courts that do not apply the judicial guarantees “which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” As a signatory to the treaties, the United States is bound to abide by the terms of the Geneva Conventions.

Habeas Corpus
– An ancient legal principle that requires a person who detains another to appear before a neutral decision-maker and justify that detention. If there is no factual or legal reason for the detention, release is ordered. Petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus is a means of testing whether a prisoner has been given basic due process rights, including notice of the basis for the detention and an opportunity to be heard; it does not establish a prisoner’s guilt or innocence, or provide the prisoner with full legal rights.

Immunity – A legal status accorded to a person or entity (.e.g., a government) which places them beyond the reach of the law.

In Forma Pauperis – Permission given to a person who cannot afford to pay to proceed in a lawsuit without having to pay court fees. It assures that no one is not deprived of their rights to litigate and appeal because of their financial standing.

Injunction - A court order prohibiting someone from a specific course of action.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)
– An autonomous part of the Organization of American States. The IACHR works independently to protect and promote Human Rights throughout the Americas, and has investigated several high-profile cases of Human Rights abuses.

International Criminal Court (ICC) - A permanent tribunal that prosecutes individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Primary responsibility to punish crimes is left to individual states and the ICC can only exercise jurisdiction when national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute such crimes. The United States “withdrew” its signature from the ICC Statute (also known as the “Rome Statute”) in May 2002.

Judicial review - A constitutional doctrine that gives a court system the power to annul legislative or executive acts which judges declare to be unconstitutional.

Jurisdiction - The authority of a court or judge to render a decision and enforce the law in a particular case.

Military Commissions Act – Passed by Congress in 2006, the Act allows for the trial by military commission of any alien who is determined by the Executive to be an “unlawful enemy combatant.” The Act also purports to punish retroactively offenses not previously recognized as war crimes under international law, including the laws of war; to limit the types of offenses punishable under the War Crimes Act; to limit U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions; and to provide retroactive immunity to U.S. officials for torture and other unlawful coercion in violation of the Detainee Treatment Act. According to the government, the Act also expressly prohibits anyone detained under such circumstances from applying for a writ of Habeas Corpus in federal court – a claim that the detainees dispute.

Military tribunal - A type of military court designed to try members of enemy forces during wartime. The judges are military officers and replace the role of jurors.

Next Friend – The legal term for a person who is not a party to a lawsuit, but who appears in a lawsuit on behalf of another person who is unable to appear on his or her own behalf. This inability to appear can be the result mental disability, infancy, or detention without access to an attorney. Lawsuits on behalf of many detainees at Guantanamo Bay were initially authorized by Next Friends, including family members of detainees and fellow detainees with access to counsel.

Nuremberg Principles – A set of guidelines created for the purposes of the Nuremberg Trials, to define War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity, and Crimes Against Peace. The Nuremberg Principles were formulated under the direction of the U.N., and have become a key part of international law in prosecuting cases such as genocide, slavery, torture, deportation, or destruction of property.

– An individual that has been wronged and brings a suit to court

– In ‘Common Law’ legal systems, a precedent is a decision adopted by a court which will be followed by other courts in subsequent cases with similar circumstances.

Qualified Immunity – A type of immunity protecting government officials from liability in cases where their actions did not violate any clearly established statutory or constitutional laws.

Section 1983 (also the Civil Rights Act of 1871)
– Allows for individuals to sue state officials in State or Federal courts for “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” The Act was established during Reconstruction to enable the prosecution of state officials who would not act against the Klu Klux Klan. Today it is most commonly used to prosecute government misconduct, such as unreasonable search and seizure, false arrest, or police brutality.

Subject matter jurisdiction – A determination of whether a court has jurisdiction, or the power to render decisions, over claims or disputes.

Statutory - Prescribed or authorized by statute or law, as in a statutory right.

Summary judgment
– A determination made by a court, applying law to facts, without going to full trial.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
– An Act which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, as well as prohibiting discrimination against an individual because of their association with another person of a particular race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Act also prohibits retaliation against employees who oppose unlawful discrimination.

Tort - A wrongful act, not including a breach of contract, that results in injury to another's person, property, reputation, or the like, and for which the injured party is entitled to compensation.

Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) – A statute that allows for the filing of civil suits in United States federal courts against individuals who, acting under actual or apparent authority, or “color of law,” of a foreign nation, committed torture and/or extrajudicial killing. The statute requires a plaintiff to show exhaustion of local remedies in the location of the crime, to the extent that such remedies are "adequate and available." It does not require that a plaintiff be a U.S. citizen.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights - A declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, consisting of 30 articles which outline the view of the United Nations General Assembly on the human rights guaranteed to all people around the world.

Universal jurisdiction – A principle in international law based on the notion that some crimes are so terrible that the responsibility to bring the perpetrators to justice knows no boundaries. Under universal jurisdiction states claim criminal jurisdiction over persons whose alleged crimes were committed outside the boundaries of the prosecuting state, regardless of nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting country.

Voting Rights Act of 1965 – An act that outlaws the requirement that citizens in the United States pass literacy tests to qualify to register to vote, and provides for federal registration of voters in areas that had less than 50% of eligible minority voters registered. The Act resulted from the Civil Rights movement, but is still relevant in places where minority voters are harassed or otherwise prevented from casting their ballots.

War Crimes Act (WCA) of 1996 – A U.S. law that defines a war crime to include a "grave breach of the Geneva Conventions," specifically noting that "grave breach" includes killing, torture, or inhumane treatment where either the perpetrator or the victim is a U.S. national or member of the armed forces.

Writ of Certiorari
- A formal written order from a higher court to a lower court requesting a transcript of the proceedings of a previous case for review. Most commonly used in the context of the Supreme Court agreeing to hear a case (“granting cert”) or refusing to take up a case (“denying cert”) in which the aggrieved party does not otherwise have an automatic right to review.

Last modified 

February 19, 2010