Monday, September 30, 2013

A Dead Language Helps Keep Law Alive

When I was in high school, I studied Latin for four years, never realizing that it would be a help to me when I later studied law. If you follow the Ohio Supreme Court on our website, you may occasionally encounter phrases that come from this “dead language.” Here are just a few examples:
  • amicus curiae = “friend of the court,” a person or entity who is not party to a court case ut who petitions the court or is requested by the court to file a brief because of a special interest in the subject of the case.
  • et al. = “and others,” an abbreviation usually used after the first  name, “Smith et al. v. Jones, et al.” used when there are many parties on one side of the case or another. 
  • ex post facto = “after the fact,” referring  to a law that makes punishable an act that was not illegal at the time it was committed.
  • habeas corpus = “you have the body,” a petition by a prisoner challenging an illegal commitment and seeking a writ that will order release from custody. 
  • nolle prosequi = “unwilling to proceed,” a decision by a prosecutor to dismiss a criminal case.
  • per curiam = ”through the court,” an opinion of the court not signed by a particular justice as an author.
  • pro se = “for oneself,” meaning a person is acting on his or her own behalf without a lawyer.
  • res judicata = “a matter judged,” an issue that already has been settled by judicial decision.
  • stare decisis = “to stand by that which is decided,” principle that precedent is to be followed in later cases.
Even though some would abolish all Latin in court documents, calling for “plain English,” certain phrases are well-established in the American legal system and will continue to be used within the profession by lawyers and judges as a kind of “shorthand” to describe legal concepts and principles. Latin still lives.

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