A Day In The Court

The American system of justice has its own terminology, roles, and customs – all of which contribute to the success of our legal system.

Plaintiff
The person who begins a lawsuit.

Defendant
The person against whom a lawsuit is started, or who is charged with having committed a crime.

Defense Attorney
The attorney representing the accused, or the defendant.

Prosecuting Attorney or Prosecutor
A public officer whose duty is the prosecution of criminal proceedings on behalf of the people. The terms “district attorney” and “state’s attorney” are used in other states and are sometimes heard on television shows. They mean the same thing.

Witness
Someone who gives testimony at a trial or hearing. Anyone, from an expert scientist to a bystander witness, can testify. Witnesses called to the stand swear under oath to tell the truth. If they refuse to answer a question, the court can hold them in “contempt” and punish them. Witnesses can refuse to talk about certain private conversations protected by “privilege,” such as those between a doctor and patient.

Presiding Judge
The judge conducting a hearing or trial, which is also the judge in charge of the case. To prepare for trial, judges research similar court decisions and cases. They rule on issues that arise during jury selection and trial, including evidentiary questions that occur as the lawyers are examining the witnesses.

Bailiff
An officer of the court in charge of the care of prisoners during the trial and responsible for guarding the jury and preserving order in the court.

Complainant
The person who makes a complaint; this is usually the plaintiff in a civil case or the victim in a criminal case.

Court Clerk
The court clerk is the official custodian of all permanent records pertaining to the court’s jurisdiction.

Court Reporter
A court official who records everything that is said in court, often using an electronic device. The reporter later prepares a written transcript if there is an appeal.

Jury
People who are sworn to consider the evidence presented and to deliver a verdict in a judicial proceeding.