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Top 10 Latin Terms to Know If You Plan to Be a Lawyer

Young woman studying
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

For many, the first semester of law school feels like learning to read all over again. Not only have many of us never laid eyes on a court opinion before, but our textbooks are riddled with terms from a language no one speaks: Latin.

But fear not, we've been there and we're here to help. Here are a few of the terms I wish I had known before beginning law school:

1. Ad hoc ("for this")

Ad hoc refers to something concerned with a particular end or purpose - a solution created to solve a very specific problem. Something ad hoc is usually improvised or put together on the fly.

2. De novo ("anew")

This phrase is most often used when we're talking about standards of judicial review. If an appellate court is reviewing a case de novo that means they don't defer to the lower court's findings, as if the case is brand new.

3. Sua sponte ("of one's own will")

When a judge acts sua sponte, it means they make a decision without one of the parties making a motion.

4. Ex parte ("for one party")

Although it isn't common practice, in some cases a judge can hold a hearing or issue an order with only one party present. If the opposing party is not notified or the court does not permit argument from them, the hearing or order is ex parte.

5. Habeas corpus ("that you have the body")

Habeas corpus matters arise when a person is imprisoned or otherwise detained by the government. Writs of habeas corpus challenge the state to show cause for the detention.

6. Per curiam ("by the court")

per curiam decision is a unanimous opinion authored by a judicial panel as a whole, as opposed to being written by one judge.

7. Ex post facto ("after the fact")

Usually used in criminal proceedings, an ex post facto ruling applies retroactively. It also comes up in the Constitution - Article I, Section 9 prohibits Congress from enacting laws that punish people retroactively.

8. In limine ("on the threshold")

My Evidence professor told a story about thinking the phrase was "motion in lemonade" before seeing it written out. But rather than delicious summertime beverages, a motion in limine requests for certain evidence to be excluded.

9. Prima facie ("at first view")

When a party makes their prima facie case, they establish a rebuttable presumption that they could win at trial. Essentially, they show that, when the facts are construed in their favor, they could meet all of the elements of their claim.

10. In re ("in the matter of")

You'll see this in a lot of case names, often referring to proceedings where there aren't necessarily adversarial parties - such as a person's estate going through probate.

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