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The Judiciary


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activist approach (judicial)
The view that judges should discern the general principles underlying the Constitution and its often vague language and assess how best to apply them in contemporary circumstances, in some cases with the guidance of moral or economic philosophy.
amicus curiae
A Latin term meaning “a friend of the court.” Refers to interested groups or individuals, not directly involved in a suit, who may file legal briefs or make oral arguments in support of one side.
brief
A legal document prepared by an attorney representing a party before a court. The document sets forth the facts of the case, summarizes the law, gives the arguments for its side, and discusses other relevant cases.
class-action suit
A case brought into court by a person on behalf of not only himself or herself but all other persons in the country under similar circumstances. For example, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court decided that not only Linda Brown but all others similarly situated had the right to attend a local public school of their choice without regard to race.
concurring opinion
A Supreme Court opinion by one or more justices who agree with the majority’s conclusion, but for different reasons.
constitutional court
A federal court exercising the judicial powers found in Article III of the Constitution and whose judges are given constitutional protection: they may not be fired (they serve during “good behavior”), nor may their salaries be reduced while they are in office. The most important constitutional courts are the Supreme Court, the ninety-four district courts, and the courts of appeals (one in each of 11 regions plus one in the District of Columbia).
courts of appeals
The federal courts with authority to review decisions by federal district courts, regulatory commissions, and certain other federal courts. Such courts have no original jurisdiction; they can hear only appeals. There are a total of 12courts of appeals in the United States and its territories, plus one for a nationwide circuit.
dissenting opinion
A Supreme Court opinion by one or more justices in the minority to explain the minority’s disagreement with the Court’s ruling.
district courts
The lowest federal courts where federal cases begin. They are the only federal courts where trials are held. There are a total of 94 district courts in the United States and its territories.
diversity cases
Cases involving citizens of different states over which the federal courts have jurisdiction because at least $75,000 is at stake.
federal-question cases
over which the federal courts have jurisdiction as described in the Constitution. Cases concerning the Constitution, federal law, or treaties
fee shifting
A law or rule that allows the plaintiff (the party that initiates the lawsuit) to collect its legal costs from the defendant if the defendant loses.
in forma pauperis
A procedure whereby a poor person can file and be heard in court as a pauper, free of charge.
judicial activism
The view that the federal courts must correct injustices when the other branches of the federal government, or the states, refuse to do so.
judicial review
The power of the courts to declare acts of the legislature and the executive to be unconstitutional and, hence, null and void.
legislative court
A court that is created by Congress for some specialized purpose and staffed with judges who do not enjoy the protection of Article III of the Constitution. Legislative courts include the Court of Military Appeals and the territorial courts.
opinions of the court
A Supreme Court opinion written by one or more justices in the majority to explain the decision in a case.
per curiam opinion
A brief, unsigned opinion issued by the Supreme Court to explain its ruling.
political question
An issue that the Supreme Court refuses to consider because it believes the Constitution has left it entirely to another branch to decide. Its view of such issues may change over time, however. For example, until the 1960s, the Court refused to hear cases about the size of congressional districts, no matter how unequal their populations. In 1962, however, it decided that it was authorized to review the constitutional implications of this issue.
precedent
A judicial rule that permits the court ruling settling an old case to settle a similar new one.
remedy
A judicial order preventing or redressing a wrong or enforcing a right.
senatorial courtesy
A tradition that makes it impossible to confirm a presidential nominee for office if a senator files a personal objection.
standing
A legal concept establishing who is entitled to bring a lawsuit to court. For example, an individual must ordinarily show personal harm in order to acquire standing and be heard in court.
stare decisis
A Latin term meaning “let the decision stand.” The practice of basing judicial decisions on precedents established in similar cases decided in the past.
strict constructionist approach (judicial)
The view that judges should decide cases on the basis of the language of the Constitution.
sovereign immunity
A doctrine that a citizen cannot sue the government without its consent. By statute Congress has given its consent for the government to be sued in many cases involving a dispute over a contract or damage done as a result of negligence.
writ of certiorari 
A Latin term meaning “made more certain.” An order issued by a higher court to a lower court to send up the record of a case for review. Most cases reach the Supreme Court through the writ of certiorari, issued when at least four of the nine justices feel that the case should be reviewed.