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Glossary of Terms

 

A

Action, Case, Suit, Lawsuit
These are terms for a dispute brought to a court to decide. An action or case may be civil or criminal.
Accusatory Instrument
To begin a criminal action, the state files this document to accuse a person of committing a criminal offense. It may be an “indictment,” an “information,” or a “complaint.”
Alternate Juror
To avoid having to retry a case when a juror is excused before the end of trial (for example, because of illness), the court may seat a few extra or “alternate” jurors to hear the trial and be available to replace any juror who is excused. Regular and alternate jurors sit together during the trial. Some judges do not tell jurors which ones are the alternates until the jury is ready to deliberate. State law limits how many alternate jurors the court may seat.
Answer
After a plaintiff files a “complaint” in court to start a civil action, the defendant files a paper called an “answer” to respond to the claims the plaintiff makes in the complaint. The complaint and answer are called “pleadings.”
Argument, Closing Argument
After the parties have finished presenting evidence (through witnesses, documents, and the like) of the facts to support their positions, each side may make a closing argument to the jury. Either before or after closing arguments, the judge instructs the jury on the law to follow to reach its decision. Each side reviews the evidence for the jury and offers its version of how the evidence proves or disproves the case.

B

Burden of Proof
In each action, the party who makes a claim against another has to offer proof to support the claim. The law requires different amounts of proof for different types of cases. In criminal cases, the proof must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In most civil cases, the amount is a “preponderance” of the evidence. In some civil cases, the proof must be “clear and convincing,” which is higher than a preponderance but less than beyond a reasonable doubt. In the jury instructions, the judge tells the jury which standard applies and what it means.

C

Capital Case This is a criminal case where the state charges that the defendant committed aggravated murder and seeks the death penalty. The case is tried in two phases: the guilt phase and the penalty phase. The guilt phase involves presenting evidence for the jury to decide whether the defendant is guilty of aggravated murder. If the jury finds the defendant guilty of aggravated murder, the jury comes back for the penalty phase to hear other evidence on four questions set out by state law. The jury’s answers to those questions determine the sentence.

 

Challenges
State law authorizes the judge and the lawyers to excuse individual jurors from service in a particular case for various reasons. If a lawyer wishes to have a juror excused, he or she must use a "challenge" for that juror. Challenges, or reasons to dismiss a juror, are of two kinds:
  1. For cause – State law lists several specific reasons to excuse jurors "for cause." For example, a juror who is related to or employed by one of the parties in the case may be excused for cause. The law does not limit the number of “for-cause” challenges.
  2. Peremptory – Each side in a trial can use a limited number of challenges without giving a reason. These are called “peremptory” challenges. State law sets the limit, which varies somewhat by the type of case. A peremptory challenge does not imply that the juror is not competent in any way. Often a juror excused in one case is selected in another.

State and federal law prohibit parties and lawyers from using these challenges to exclude jurors based on race, ethnicity, gender, or other reasons that indicate bias against an entire segment of the community.

Civil Action or Case
This is a legal dispute that does not involve prosecuting a criminal charge and is between parties who are individuals, businesses, or government entities; instead one or more parties usually called plaintiffs seek a judgment against other parties usually called defendants. In most civil actions that juries hear, the plaintiffs seek money damages.
Clerk/Bailiff
The courtroom clerk, sometimes called a bailiff, is a court employee who serves the judge and the jury and helps maintain order in the courtroom. The clerk keeps a record of the papers, exhibits, orders and rulings the judge makes during trial, and the verdict. The clerk usually administers the oath or affirmation to jurors and witnesses. Other court staff may be in the courtroom, such as a court reporter.
Complaint
The plaintiff files a “pleading” called a “complaint” to bring a dispute to the court to decide. In a civil action, the complaint lists the plaintiff’s claims against one or more defendants; in a criminal action in state court, the state uses a complaint or other accusatory instrument to accuse the defendant of committing a criminal offense.
Counsel
Judges and lawyers often refer to the lawyers who represent parties in a trial as “counsel.” It is both singular and plural.
Criminal Action/Case
In these actions, the government accuses individuals or organizations of conduct that the legislative branch of government has defined as a crime. Jurors determine whether the defendant is “guilty” or “not guilty.”
Cross Examination
Each party “examines” witnesses by asking them questions relevant to the issues in the case. First, the party or party’s lawyer who called the witness to testify ask questions, called “examination” or “direct examination.” The opposing party or lawyer then may ask that witness questions, called “cross examination.”

D

Defendant
In a civil action, the defendant is the party called to answer claims brought by the plaintiff. In a criminal action, the defendant is the party accused of committing a crime.
Deliberations
After the court instructs the jury on the law, it sends the jury to the jury room to “deliberate” or discuss the evidence and reach a verdict. “Deliberations” describes the jury’s work of discussing the evidence, finding the facts, applying the law as the court instructs, and deciding the verdict
Deposition
Before trial, one party may “depose” another party or a witness by asking that person questions under oath. A court reporter makes a record of the questions and answers and then “transcribes” the testimony in writing. Both the questioning and the written transcript are called “depositions.” Parties take depositions for several reasons, including to substitute for testimony at trial when the witness is ill or cannot attend, or to help discover information to help prepare for trial. A party may use parts of a deposition at trial but only for limited purposes.

E

Examination or Direct Examination
See “Cross Examination,” above.
Exhibits
In addition to calling witnesses to testify, parties may offer objects, such as documents, books, letters, and pictures, as evidence. Each item is marked or labeled with a number or letter or both for reference. The parties and the court use that label when referring to the object during the trial. If the court receives or “admits” these objects in evidence, the jury reviews those items along with the witness testimony during deliberations.
Exemptions/Excuses/Deferral/Postponement
State law requires every person who meets the basic qualifications to serve on a jury when called unless the person requests, and the court grants, a delay or an exemption. State statutes list the reasons a court may defer or excuse a person from jury service. The Oregon State Bar Handbook for Jurors has more information.
Oregon state courts work with jurors who have schedule conflicts to defer jury service to a later, more convenient time. Courts can usually accommodate requests to defer service if the juror sends a request to the court as soon as possible after receiving the summons. The summons has information on how to request waiver or deferral. The law does not now permit requests by electronic mail.

F

Foreperson, Presiding Juror
After the judge instructs the jury and sends the jury to deliberate, the jury’s first task is to choose one of its members to be the foreperson or presiding juror. The foreperson/presiding juror leads the discussion and ensures that the jurors discuss the issues
  • openly
  • fully
  • in an orderly way
  • with respect for every juror’s opinion

The foreperson oversees the voting process, counts the votes, and completes and signs the verdict form.

J

Jury Coordinator
The jury coordinator is a court employee who
  • helps jurors schedule their service
  • answers jurors’ questions about jury service
  • gets juror information to ensure proper payment
  • helps orient jurors to jury service and the courthouse setting

f you have questions about jury service in your local court, this is the person to contact.

Jury Instructions

The judge gives the jury instructions at the beginning of the trial, before deliberations, and at the end of the trial. Instructions at the beginning of the trial usually include rules for juror conduct. Instructions before deliberations outline the law that the jury must apply in determining the facts and deciding the verdict; the judge may give those instruction before or after final argument. At the end of trial, the court may give some final guidelines about what jurors may discuss with others, what they need not discuss if they choose not to, information about debriefing sessions for jurors in emotionally difficult cases. Judges frequently meet with juries after trial to get feedback about jury service and about what the judge, lawyers, and jury coordinator can do to improve jury service for future jurors.
Jury Selection
When a judge is ready to begin selecting jurors for a trial, the judge sends a request to the jury assembly room to send a jury panel to the courtroom so that the judge and lawyers may question the panel and select the number of jurors needed for that trial. The questions help the judge and lawyers determine whether the jurors can serve without bias or prejudice or whether some reason exists that might interfere with the juror’s ability to serve. This process is also known as “voir dire.”

L

Litigants
These are the parties in an action; in most jury trials, parties have lawyers to represent them.

O

Objection
A party or the party’s lawyer may object to a question another party or lawyer asks a witness, a witness’s answer, an exhibit, or improper argument as not proper under the law. The judge “rules” or decides whether under the rules of evidence the objection is proper (“sustained”) or not proper (“overruled”). The jury must accept the judge’s ruling.
One-trial/One day (popularly known as “One-day/One-trial”)
Most state courts have shortened the term of jury service. In most larger courts, the term is now one trial or, for jurors not selected for trial or grand jury, one day. Courts in counties with fewer citizens are also shortening the terms as much as they can but may not be able to adopt one-trial/one-day terms yet because state law limits how often courts may require a citizen to serve as a juror. Many trials are longer than one day.
Opening Statement
Before calling witnesses, each party or the party’s lawyer may present an opening statement to tell the jury what the case is about and what evidence each expects to offer to prove or disprove the claims made. Some judges allow lawyers to make “mini-opening statements” before jury selection to help potential jurors understand a little about the case and the questions the lawyers may ask during jury selection.

P

Plaintiff
The plaintiff is the person or entity who files a complaint to bring a legal dispute to court for decision.
Pleadings
The parties in the action file papers called pleadings that state their claims against each other. In a civil case, the plaintiff files a complaint, then the defendant files an answer, and often the plaintiff files a reply to the answer.

R

Rest
When one party finishes presenting evidence to support the party’s claims or dispute the other party’s claims, the party “rests.”

S

Subpoena
This is an order to appear at court at a set time, usually used to summon witnesses to court to testify or to bring documents.

V

Verdict
This is the formal finding or decision by a jury in a jury trial or by the judge if there is no jury.
Voir Dire
From Old French, meaning “to speak the truth,” voir dire is the process of questioning prospective jurors before a trial to select qualified jurors for the trial.