8 TV-Favorite Legal Terms, Explained

TL;DR

Lawyers remain among the worst offenders of the plain-language preference of readers, viewers, & listeners. This article explains legal gobbledygook —objections— spilling from tv screens.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Naked List of the Top 8 TV Legal Darlings

  • objection
    • irrelevant
    • prejudicial
    • asked and answered
  • sidebar
  • opinion / case law
  • appeal …. to get to the facts
  • innocent vs not guilty

8 Legal Terms Frequenting TV, Explained

1️⃣ Objection!

Two opposing attorneys meet, with a judge and jury witnessing all. As one lawyer speaks, the other attorney jumps up, shouting Objection! Wazzup with that?

Legal objections COMMAND attention! (Brown Thrasher, Apex Cmmty Park, NC)
Legal objections COMMAND attention! (Brown Thrasher, Apex Cmmty Park, NC)

Remember your driver’s license test? Knowing the rules of the road empowered you to pass the test. The rules of the road, within the context of a courtroom, flow from a group of procedural rules. What rules? Deep breath:

  • Evidence
  • Civil or Criminal Procedure (depending on the subject matter of the case)
  • the state Consitution
  • the Constitution of the United States of America

The judge resolves the objection through a curt sustained (granted) or denied. Rejected objections may reawaken in another court during the appeal process. (explained below)

Cliff Notes version: rules determine what evidence may be presented in court. The judge decides which lawyer’s argument will rule the day. An appeal court will agree, or disagree with the trial judge’s ruling, and render its decision / opinion.

2️⃣ Objection, irrelevant!

On a Wednesday evening, you tell your child to turn off NetFlix, go upstairs, and do homework. Your offspring responds, “But me and the guys are going to the park on Monday.” Monday’s planned activities offer no impact on Wednesday’s homework. The child’s remarks are irrelevant to your instructions.

In court, certain issues gain prominence. Issues depend on facts. Opposing parties argue about the facts, and the issues. Anything tending to prove, or disprove, a fact is deemed relevant. Why care? Trials are long enough when restricted to relevant evidence (O.J., anyone?). The rules demand relevancy. What’s irrelevant is not admissible, legalese for Thou shalt not mention.

3️⃣ Objection, prejudicial!

Driver SusieMay defends a personal injury lawsuit, following a rear-end car collision. The injured person, the plaintiff, wants to inform the jury about five prior rear-end collisions, within the past eight years, each involving driver SusieMay. SusieMay’s lawyer objects, claiming allowing the jury to hear the prior-accidents information would prove too prejudicial.

The plaintiff wants the jury to surmise a driver, with a history of colliding into the rear end of cars, probably did the same thing in the current case. But those prior accidents unfolded during a timeframe outside the current case. The twin realities instigate the defending lawyer’s prejudicial objection. As always, the judge will resolve the objection, accepting or rejecting it.

4️⃣ Objection, asked and answered

Think of commercials and web ads, assaulting you repeatedly with the same message. Returning to the courtroom context, when an attorney encounters difficulty in securing a desired answer, the attorney may restate the question several ways. But the person on the witness stand, or in the deposition1 chair, already responded. The idea here involves asking questions and, once answered, moving on to a different question. When counsel fails to do so, the opposing lawyer will declare objection, asked and answered.

Teenage brothers sit in a living room with their parents. One parent nods at the other. Their eyes meet. Both stand up and walk into the kitchen, where they engage in whispered conversation.

The judge listens to the arguments of opposing counsel. (Parakeets a/k/a Budgies, Scotland Neck, NC)
The judge listens to the arguments of opposing counsel. (Parakeets a/k/a Budgies, Scotland Neck, NC)

The courtroom version mirrors this scenario. One attorney wants to discuss something with the judge, but does not want the jury to hear that discussion. Opposing counsel joins the requesting attorney, both moving to the area where the judge sits. Whispering commences.

Different courtrooms maintain different layouts. A judge’s area may be elevated; it may be a long conference table, situated at the same level as other desks. In each instance, a sidebar contemplates a discussion among judge and attorneys, outside the hearing of the jury present in the courtroom.

6️⃣ Opinion / Caselaw

An opinion is written by one or more judges. It explains the rationale underlying a judge’s decision. When multiple opinions address the same topic (e.g. products liability, negligence, slander), legal folks call that group of related opinions caselaw.

The Land of Verbal Donkey Dust

Lawyers speak the following statements outside the courtroom, both in scripted tv shows and real life. In all instances, the message conveyed ignores legal reality.

7️⃣ We plan to appeal this case, to get to the facts

When news cameras appear after a verdict is announced, the attorney who lost the case may say, We look forward to appealing this matter, to get to the facts.

The lawyer losing the case may file an appeal on behalf of the client. An appeal focuses only on the legal rulings made by the trial judge, who rejected one or more objections made by the losing party.

A magician on a stage saws a woman (never a man, a subject for another day) in half, then smiles when the whole-body woman appears. The magician depends on sleight of hand to fool the audience. The lawyer using the words facts and appeal in the same sentence plays a similar game.

Understand: only the fact-finder (e.g. jury) resolves/determines the facts. The appeals court resolves/determines legal issues.

8️⃣ The jury’s not guilty verdict proves my client’s innocence.

Not guilty and innocent embrace different concepts. Not guilty = the entity prosecuting the action failed to prove each element of the civil claim or criminal charge. Innocent = the person accused did not commit the actions claimed.

Every apple is fruit. Not every piece of fruit is an apple. Every innocent person is accurately deemed not guilty. But a not guilty verdict does not translate into actual innocence.

Additional Sources

20+ years of professional hands-on experience as a litigator in civil courts, and criminal court as an assistant prosecutor.

Footnotes

  1. When a person takes the witness stand, that witness first formally verifies that only truth will be spoken. This transpires through a sworn oath, or something similar. The same procedure holds true during a pre-trial mechanism called a deposition. A judge usually is not present during a deposition, but all words carry the same weight as if spoken in a courtroom.

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