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This glossary will help you understand some of the terminology you may encounter when researching U.S. Supreme Court decisions. For additional help with unfamiliar legal terms, consult a legal dictionary such as Black's Law Dictionary, 10th ed. (2014).
Annual term - the yearly period of time that the Supreme Court hears cases. The term typically lasts for nine months and begins on the first Monday of October. (This is often referred to as the "October term.") The term is divided into sittings and recesses. During sittings, the Court hears oral arguments and delivers opinions. During recesses, the Court conducts business and writes opinions.
Briefs - written arguments that support the position of the plaintiff(s) or the defendant(s) in a case heard before the Court. Plaintiffs and defendants are both required to submit written briefs.
Concurring opinion - an opinion written by one or more justices who agree with the judgment reached by the majority of the Court justices, but for different reasons. A case may have one or more concurring opinions.
Defendant - the person required to answer a complaint in a law suit.
Dissenting opinion - an opinion written by one or more justices who disagree with the judgment reached by the majority of the Court justices. A case may have one or more dissenting opinions. A dissenting opinion is sometimes called a minority opinion.
Law clerks - clerks who assist the Court justices in research and drafting opinions. Law clerks are usually recent law school graduates.
Majority opinion - an opinion shared by more than half of the Court justices deciding the outcome of a case.
Oral argument - a verbal debate held between attorneys for the plaintiff(s) and the defendant(s) before all nine Court justices. The oral argument is held after receiving written briefs from both parties. Justices frequently question the attorneys during the course of their presentations. During the years that Justice Clark sat on the bench, oral arguments for each case were limited to two hours total, or one hour for each side.
Petition for Certiorari - a petition from a person who has lost a case in a lower federal or state court and believes that the case should be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Though nearly all the cases the Court hears are requested this way, only a small percentage of petitions overall are granted each year.
Petitioner - the person who asks that the case be heard by the Court and files the Petition for Certiorari. If the person is successful in getting the Court to hear the case, he or she is referred to as the petitioner throughout the rest of the proceedings.
Plaintiff - the person in a law suit who is bringing the complaint to the Court.
Respondent - the person that responds to the petitioner's request for the Court to hear a case. The respondent is the person who was in the original suit against the petitioner. The respondent will generally argue against the Court's hearing the case.
Unanimous opinion - an opinion that all of the Court justices agreed on.
Weekly conference - a private conference among the justices held every Friday to discuss and vote on whether to grant the petition of certiorari for pending cases, and also to decide the outcome of cases that have already been heard. At the conclusion of the conference, the chief justice assigns the task of writing opinions for decided cases.
Further reading: Chapter 16, "Operations and Traditions of the Court," in Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, CQ Press.