Legal Terms O – P

Legal Terms O - Pobjection — a lawyer’s belief, stated to the judge, that something is wrong with a question posed by opposing counsel, the way opposing counsel phrases a question, or the way a witness answers it. If the judge thinks the objection is valid, he or she will sustain the objection and tell the witness not to answer or tell the jury to disregard the answer. If there is no basis for the objection, the judge will overrule it and let the questioning continue.

opening statements — before the evidence is presented in a trial, lawyers’ presentations to the jury summarizing what they intend to present as evidence. Opening statements, like closing arguments, are not themselves evidence.

opinion — a judge’s written explanation of a decision in a case or some aspect of a case. An opinion of the court explains the decision of all or a majority of the judges. A dissenting opinion is an opinion by one or more judges who disagree with the majority. A concurring opinion is an opinion by one or more judges that agrees with the decision of the majority but offers further comment or a different reason for the decision. A per curiam opinion is an opinion handed down by an appellate court but not signed by an individual judge.

oral argument — in appellate cases, an opportunity for the lawyers for each side to appear before the judges to summarize their positions and answer the judges’ questions.

order — a decision or direction made by a judicial authority. Judges issue orders in response to motions.

overrule — (1) a judge’s ruling at trial that a lawyer’s objection is without merit, and that the questioning or testimony objected to may continue; (2) a court’s decision to set aside the authority of a former decision.

panel — (1) in appellate cases, a group of three judges assigned to decide the case; (2) in the process of jury selection, the group of potential jurors from which the jury is chosen; (3) in criminal cases, a group of private lawyers whom the court has approved to be appointed to represent defendants unable to afford to hire lawyers.

parole — the suspension of a convict’s prison sentence and the convict’s release from prison, at the discretion of an executive branch agency and conditioned on the convict’s compliance with the terms of parole. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 abolished federal parole. Offenders whose crimes were committed on or after November 1, 1987, are sentenced by the court under sentencing guidelines established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and, unlike previous offenders, may not have their sentences reviewed by the U.S. Parole Commission. See also probation and supervised release.

parties — the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) in a lawsuit.

per curiam opinion — see opinion.

peremptory challenge — an attorney’s striking (excusing) a person from a panel of prospective jurors during jury selection for a trial without stating any reason. Attorneys have the right to a certain number of peremptory challenges in each case. Peremptory challenges may be made for a variety of reasons, including hunches, but may not be based on race or gender. Compare with challenge for cause.

petition — (1) a document filed in a U.S. court of appeals to commence an appeal of a final decision of a federal agency, board, commission, or officer; (2) a document filed in bankruptcy court to initiate a bankruptcy case.

petitioner — the party filing a petition in the court of appeals, seeking review of an order issued by a federal agency, board, commission, or officer.

petition for rehearing — a document filed by a party who lost a case in the U.S. court of appeals to ask the panel to reconsider its decision. If the panel grants the petition, it may ask the parties to file additional briefs and reargue the case.

petit jury (or trial jury) — a group of citizens who hear the evidence presented by both sides at trial in a case and determine the facts in dispute. Federal criminal juries consist of twelve persons, and sometimes additional persons serve as alternate jurors in case one or more of the twelve cannot continue. Federal civil juries consist of six to twelve persons. Petit is French for “small,” thus distinguishing the trial jury from the larger grand jury (grand is French for “large”).

plaintiff — the person who files the complaint in a civil lawsuit.

plan of reorganization — in bankruptcy, a plan that sets out how a debtor in a Chapter 11 reorganization proposes to repay its creditors.

plea — in a criminal case, the defendant’s statement to the court that he or she is “guilty” or “not guilty” of the charges.

plea agreement — an agreement between the government and the defendant to resolve a pending criminal case by the defendant’s entering a guilty plea rather than going to trial. The prosecutor may agree to dismiss or reduce certain charges, or recommend a certain sentence in return for the defendant’s entering a guilty plea and, in some cases, providing information to the prosecutor.

plea bargain — The process in which the defendant and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to court approval. It usually involves the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser offense or to only one or some of the counts in a multi-count indictment in return for a lighter sentence than the defendant would have received if convicted of the more serious charges.

pleadings — in a civil case, the written statements of the parties stating their positions about the case.

precedent — a court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to those in a case currently before a court. Courts are required to follow some precedents. For example, a U.S. court of appeals must follow decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court; a district court must follow decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and of the court of appeals of its own circuit. Courts are also influenced by decisions they are not required to follow, such as the decisions of other circuits. Courts also follow their own precedents unless they set forth reasons for changing the case law.

prediscovery meeting — a meeting required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(f), at which the parties or their attorneys in a civil case discuss their claims and defenses, explore possibilities for settlement, make or arrange for the disclosures required by Rule 26(a), and develop a discovery plan to be filed with the court.

preliminary examination — a preindictment hearing at which the prosecutor must present evidence sufficient to establish probable cause to believe that a federal offense was committed and that the defendant committed it.

preponderance of the evidence — see burden of proof.

presentence report — a report a probation officer prepares on the basis of an investigation of a convicted defendant that the officer conducted at the request of the court. It provides extensive information about the defendant’s background, financial condition, criminal offense or offenses, and criminal history for the judge to use in determining an appropriate sentence for the defendant.

presumption of innocence — the requirement in a criminal trial that the jury presume that the defendant is innocent of all charges. The judge instructs the jury that, before the defendant can be found guilty, the government must overcome the presumption of innocence and convince the jurors that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

pretrial conference — (1) in a civil case, a meeting of the judge and lawyers conducted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 16(d) to decide which matters are in dispute and should be presented to the jury, to review evidence and witnesses to be presented, to set a timetable for the case, and sometimes to discuss settlement of the case; (2) in a criminal case, a meeting which the court may conduct, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 17.1, upon motion of any party or on its own motion, “to consider such matters as will promote a fair and expeditious trial.”

pretrial release conditions — the conditions under which a defendant may be released prior to trial under the Bail Reform Act of 1984. The conditions may be designed to ensure the defendant’s appearance in court or the safety of the community.

pretrial services officer — an officer of the court who collects and verifies information to be used by judges in deciding issues related to defendants’ pretrial release and detention. In districts that do not have pretrial services offices, probation officers also serve as pretrial services officers.

pretrial services report — a report a pretrial services officer prepares that contains information learned through a pretrial services investigation about a defendant’s personal history, criminal record, and financial status. The report is given to the U.S. magistrate judge, the prosecutor, and defense counsel for use in deciding issues related to bail.

priority unsecured claim — in bankruptcy, a claim that takes priority over unsecured claims. A creditor with a priority unsecured claim does not have an interest in any specific property of the debtor as assurance of payment, but by operation of bankruptcy law must be paid in full before creditors who have claims without priority get anything. Examples of priority unsecured claims are those for employee wages, child support, and administration of the bankruptcy estate.

privilege against self-incrimination — a person’s right to remain silent in the face of accusation or questioning by government agents. Also known as the right to remain silent, the privilege against self-incrimination is contained in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. People may invoke the privilege at any time, including immediately after an arrest, at the police station, before the grand jury, and at trial.

pro bono publico — a Latin term meaning “for the good of the public.” Some lawyers take on certain kinds of cases pro bono, without expectation of payment; these cases are called “pro bono cases.”

pro se — a Latin term meaning “on one’s own behalf.” In courts, it refers to persons who present their own cases without lawyers.

probable cause — the legal standard defining the amount of evidence or information needed to justify a search or an arrest. The Fourth Amendment requires that arrests and searches made by law enforcement officers be justified by probable cause. An arresting officer has probable cause for an arrest only if there is enough reliable information or evidence to support the officer’s reasonable belief that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it.

probation — a criminal sentence in which the offender is placed under court supervision for a specified period of time, but allowed to remain in the community. While on probation the offender is required to report to a probation officer and comply with other court-imposed conditions (compare with supervised release).

probation officer — an officer of the court who is responsible for conducting presentence investigations of offenders and preparing presentence reports, and is responsible for supervising persons on probation or supervised release.

proof beyond a reasonable doubt — see burden of proof.

prosecute — to charge a person or organization with a crime and seek to gain a criminal conviction against that person or organization.

prosecutor — the government lawyer responsible for prosecuting criminal defendants. In federal cases, the prosecutor is the U.S. attorney or assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA).