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Legal Terms

Several important cases winding their way through the court system rest on some key legal terms, but what they mean isn't exactly common knowledge. KQED News created this guide to help you learn more what these words mean, and how they're being used.


An injunction is a court order requiring a party to do, or stop doing, a specific act (for instance, enforcing a law). It comes from the same Latin root as the verb enjoin.

Typically, a court issues an injunction in response to a prayer for relief, a request, from the plaintiff in a lawsuit. An injunction can take several forms: a temporary restraining order, a short-term order granted to allow a court time to consider whether a hearing or longer-term injunction is warranted; a preliminary injunction, granted when the court is satisfied that the issues in a suit are serious enough that they warrant a full hearing and the plaintiff is likely to prevail; and a permanent injunction, granted after a trial of the issues in a suit and meant to stand as law (barring a successful appeal of the court's judgment).

In the News


A stay is an order that suspends or stops a court order or proceeding.

When considering a stay, federal courts are supposed look at four factors:

  1. whether proponents showed that they are likely to win the case;
  2. whether proponents will be irreparably injured without the stay;
  3. whether the stay will substantially injure other interested parties; and
  4. whether the stay is in the public interest.

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Intervention is the ability of a party to join an ongoing lawsuit, sometimes without the permission of the original parties.

In U.S. law, states are considered to have an automatic right to intervene if a case concerns its laws or how they're enforced. Courts may allow intervention when a party can show its interests are at stake but not being considered.

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Standing is the legal determination of whether a party has a right to file a lawsuit or petition or to intervene in a case. A plaintiff will have standing if:

  1. Injury: The plaintiff has suffered, or will quickly suffer, injury to a legally protected right. The injury must be actual, and not abstract.
  2. Causation: There must be a direct connection between the lawsuit at hand and the plaintiff. The party must be directly affected by the suit, and cannot be affected by a third party.
  3. Redressability: It must be likely that if the plaintiff wins, the court decision will directly stop a legal injury.

The concept of standing is meant to prevent parties who are not directly involved in a controversy from assuming a role in a lawsuit. If either the plaintiff or defendant do not have standing then the court can throw the case out as a summary judgment.

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En Banc

En banc (French for "in the bench") is an extraordinary hearing before an expanded panel of appeals judges. Federal appeals normally involve three judges. A party that loses an appeal before a three-judge panel may request reconsideration before an en banc hearing. In the 9th Circuit, an en banc panel usually includes 11 judges—the circuit's chief judge (in the 9th, that's Judge Alex Kozinski) and 10 randomly chosen jurists.

In the News

Due process and equal protection

In Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the plaintiffs who sued to overturn Proposition 8 argued that the measure violated rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution: the right to due process and the right to equal protection under the law. These rights are enumerated in the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 in an attempt to guarantee civil rights of newly freed slaves.

No State … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

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Standards of review: Rational basis, strict scrutiny

Federal courts have adopted a three-tier standard of review for Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claims: rational basis review, intermediate scrutiny, and strict scrutiny.

The standards are based on a principle that Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy articulated in Romer v. Evans, a 1996 decision that struck down a Colorado initiative that barred government (including state courts) from recognizing gays, lesbians, and bisexuals as a protected legal class. Kennedy wrote, "The Fourteenth Amendment's promise that no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws must co exist with the practical necessity that most legislation classifies for one purpose or another, with resulting disadvantage to various groups or persons."

The standards give a framework for assessing whether the classifications imposed by law—for instance, defining people under 21 as minors prohibited from purchasing and consuming alcohol—"bear a rational relation to some legitimate end." Briefly, the standards of review are:

Rational basis review merely provides that a law bear a rational relationship to a legitimate government purpose (without regard to the class of people who might be affected by the law).

Intermediate scrutiny is used when certain "suspect classes" may be affected by a law. The standard is most often employed in gender-discrimination cases. Under intermediate scrutiny, laws are constitutional if they have a substantial relationship to an important government interest.

Strict scrutiny is used to evaluate measures that specifically impact racial groups or which impact fundamental rights. At this level of scrutiny, laws and regulations must have a close relationship to a compelling government interest to pass constitutional muster.

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Amicus Curiae

Amicus curiae is Latin for "friend of the court," a party who joins a case to volunteer information, often a brief, to help the court decide the case. When a party joins a case it is an intervention.

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