Glossary of Legal Terms in the United States
Here are some definitions and explanations of common legal terms, symbols, and abbreviations.
You can also read more about Legal Basics.
Administrative Code: An administrative code usually refers to local laws. In some cities, the administrative code is the collection of laws that apply to the citizens and other individuals within the city (e.g. New York Administrative Code). In other cities (e.g. Los Angeles), the administrative code is the collection of rules about how local government operates, while the Municipal Code (see below) refers to the more substantive local laws for everyone.
Affidavit: An affidavit is a written statement (sometimes a form) in which you declare certain facts to be true, such as “I live at 123 Main Street and I have known this person for 10 years” etc. The statement is made either “under oath” where a notary or other official asks you to swear or affirm that you are telling the truth, or the affidavit itself simply says you declare the facts to be true “under penalty of perjury.” Penalty of perjury means if you are later found to have lied in the statement, you could be charged with the crime of perjury.
Agency: Usually refers to an arm or sub-branch of the executive branch of government which carries out and enforces certain laws. There are federal, state and local agencies, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Coastal Commission, and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, respectively.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): Ways to resolve a dispute outside the court system. See more at our Guide to Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution
Amicus brief: Also called amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief, this is when a person or organization not directly involved in a lawsuit submits a brief (document) that provides information and arguments to the court.
Arbitration: a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that provides a binding decision outside the courts. See more at our Guide to Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Cause of Action: A cause of action is a claim that someone violated a particular law. For example, if you have a contract with someone and they did not fulfill their obligations under the contract, you may have a cause of action for breach of contract. You could then bring a lawsuit based on that cause of action, as well as other potential causes of action, such as misrepresentation. You can sue for multiple causes of action at once.
Class Action: A “class action” is a lawsuit brought on behalf of multiple people (often hundreds or thousands) with similar claims against the same defendants (usually a company). It is an easier way to pursue everyone’s rights versus if each person had to sue individually. See more at our Guide to Class Actions.
Code: A code is a collection of current laws created by legislation in a particular location, including city, state or the country. For example, the laws passed by Congress and signed by the President are called the “United States Code,” sometimes simply “U.S.C.” The “New York Consolidated Laws” is the code of laws passed by the New York state legislature and signed by the governor. Local laws passed by a city or county are found in the local codes, sometimes called “municipal codes” or “administrative codes” or “code of ordinances.” Sometimes people casually say “the code” to refer to a specific body of law within a municipal or state code. For example, the Los Angeles Building Code is the collection of laws about building safety within the Los Angeles City Municipal Code. And often when someone says something is or isn’t “up to code,” it means it does or doesn’t comply with the Building Code.
Constitution: This is generally a document which sets out what the government can and can’t do, how it functions, and what basic rights must be upheld. When people talk about the “Constitution” they are usually referring to the U.S. Constitution. But each state also has its own constitution. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the United States, and no other laws nor government official may contradict it.
Contempt: When a court finds someone “in contempt of court,” this generally means the person is disobeying the judge or a court order. The judge can then have the person arrested and put in jail.
Damages: In the legal system, “damages” refers to two things: (1) the harm a person has been caused by another, which may include monetary, physical, emotional or other types; and (2) the amount of money you claim you are owed due to the harms suffered.
Defendant: In a lawsuit or criminal proceeding, this is the person or entity being sued or prosecuted.
Execute (an agreement): To execute an agreement or contract is simply to sign it.
Executive Order: An executive order is an order by a president or governor to his or her administration (government agencies) regarding the way they are conducting their operations
Felony: Crimes are generally classified as either a misdemeanor (less serious crime) or felony
(more serious crime). Felonies involve a punishment of 1 year or more of imprisonment.
Infraction: This is a classification of a law that is considered a “non crime” and less serious than either a felony or misdemeanor. For example, some states consider possession of small amounts of marijuana to be simply an infraction.
Jury Nullification: The controversial idea that a juror ultimately can ignore the law and decide how they want a case to be resolved based on what they think is right
Mediation: A form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that provides a non-binding process for resolving disputes outside the courts. See our Guide to Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution.
Misdemeanor: Crimes are generally classified as either a misdemeanor (less serious crime) or felony (more serious crime). Misdemeanors generally involve a punishment of less than 1 year of imprisonment.
Municipality: A municipality or “municipal corporation” is generally a city that has the power to make laws and function as its own local government, such as Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Chicago, etc.
Notarize: To have a document notarized means to get a “notary public” to sign and (usually) stamp the document, acknowledging that they have witnessed the document being “executed” (signed) by the person or parties listed on the document. Often this involves checking identification of the individuals executing (signing) the document.
Ordinance: An ordinance is a “local law” enacted by a local government, such as a city or county
Plaintiff: This is a person who feels she/he has been harmed in some way and brings a lawsuit against the person(s) who allegedly caused the harm.
Regulation: This usually refers to a law enacted by an executive agency, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the California Coastal Commission. Rules and regulations elaborate on law passed by the legislature. But sometimes it actually refers to laws passed by the legislature itself when they regulate or seek to modify behavior of individuals or organizations.
Rule: Mostly interchangeable with “Regulation” (see above).
Statute: A statute is what most people think of as a “law.” It is legislation passed by an elected body, such as Congress. (Note: Laws other than statutes include court decisions and rules & regulations.)
Statute of Limitations: The time limit for how long after a person’s supposed violation of a law that the law can be enforced against that person. For example, if the statute of limitations on a crime is 5 years, then the government has 5 years to charge you with that crime, after which it can no longer take action against you (with some exceptions). Or if a person has violated a civil law causing you harm, and the law has a statute of limitations of 5 years, you have 5 years to sue that person. Most laws have an applicable statute of limitations.
Warrant: A police officer or other law enforcement usually needs to get a “warrant” in order to search you or your property, take your property, or to arrest you. This is usually required under the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but there are many exceptions. An officer obtains a warrant from a judge by convincing the judge that the officer will likely find evidence of a specific crime in searching you, or that you have indeed committed a crime. See our Guide to Police Conduct for more.
Zoning: Zoning refers to local laws created by cities and counties to determine how particular areas of land can be used (aka “land use”). For example, the city may decide that certain areas are for residential uses, or commercial uses, or industrial uses, etc.
Symbols & Abbreviations
ADR = alternative dispute resolution (see above)
§ or Sec. = section (as in, section of code)
U.S.C. or USC = usually refers to the United States Code, which are the currently effective laws passed by Congress
© = the C in a circle symbol is used to give notice to others about copyright rights in a particular work
TM = trademark, the letters TM after a word, phrase, or logo usually signifies a claim to trademark rights which is NOT registered, but is used to claim “common law” trademark rights
® = The R in a circle symbol is used to notify others of a trademark registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office
Esq. = this usually signifies that someone is a licensed Attorney, and is used as “Jane Doe, Esq.”