From Subpoena to Appeal: The language of the law


Jurisprudence has three interlinking senses that tie this word tightly to the spirit of the law. Jurisprudence is: "the science or philosophy of law, a specific system or body of laws, or a singular branch of law (e.g. civil jurisprudence)." The word is derived from the Latin juris prudentia with juris meaning "of right, of law" and prudentia meaning "knowledge, a foreseeing." In its philosophical context jurisprudence means not only writing the laws, but creating a method by which to interpret them: the very method that we'll explore in this slideshow.


Have you ever been chased down by someone holding a manila envelope asking you your name? If so, you've likely been served with a subpoena. A written order that compels a witness or participant to appear in court on a specified date "under penalty of law," a subpoena is the first step in court proceedings. The "penalty" for failure to comply with a subpoena can be as serious as jail time. The word is a direct transcription from the Middle Latin sub poena meaning "under penalty." So we've got our subpoena, guess it's time to go to court.


We know we've been summoned to court, but why? Who set all this in motion? That would be the plaintiff. The plaintiff is the person/party that institutes a suit in court, as opposed to the defendant, the person/party that the plaintiff sues. The word is derived from the Old French plaintif meaning "complaining," but in a court case plaintiffs have to do a lot more than complain to get their way, and the job of arguing the case belongs to the lawyers.


Why is the plaintiff so hurt? If the offense involved damage to their person, property, or reputation then they've fallen victim to a tort. The word is derived from the Medieval Latin verb torquere meaning "to twist," an etymology that holds true for its sister term retort referring to a "twisting of words." Tort does not refer to a breach of contract or trust, only a civil wrong resulting from an action. So how bad can a tort be? Flip to the next slide to find out.


A felony is an offense of "grave character," (i.e. burglary or murder) that is punishable by more than one year in prison under United States law. The word is derived from the Old French felonie relating to "wickedness, evil, cruelty." But an accused felon is very different from a convicted felon, and due process of law grants that every defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Let's return to our court case and swear in the witness on the next slide.


"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" Yes? Alright, let's get on with the deposition. A deposition is a testimony given under oath, though it may also be a statement written for use in court when a witness is unable to appear. The word comes from the Late Latin depositio meaning "a laying down." But just because you think it's true, doesn't mean a given testimony will be admissible in court. Flip to our next slide to learn what not to say.


"Lauren told me Joe stole the car." Whether or not Lauren is a reputable source, this statement is considered hearsay and is generally not admissible as evidence in court. Hearsay testimony is usually rejected in the United States because the information rests on the accuracy of a person who is neither under oath nor present for cross-examination. The word began as a translation of the Middle French phrase par ouir dire meaning "by hear say," and was shortened to "hearsay" in the 1530s.


It's been a long day at the courthouse and the judge finally strikes her gavel pronouncing, "Court is adjourned." But just because an adjournment comes at the end of a session of the court, by no means does it state that a trial is over. To adjourn is to postpone or suspend a meeting of a court or group until a later time. The word is derived from the Old French ajourner meaning "to a stated day," but in court, only the judge can state which day that will be.


The case is finally closed, the judge pronounces a ruling, but you're not satisfied. You can become an appellant. When a party in a court case feels that he has not been justly served by the law, he may appeal his case to a higher court, making him "the appellant" (one who appeals). Important cases like Brown vs. Board of Education are appealed until they reach the Supreme Court. "Appellant" is derived from the Latin stem pellere meaning "to push, beat against." We hope this language will serve you both in and out of the trial room. See you in court!