I figured for this week, I would share some important legal terms that often confuse people reading decisions. Most of these are Latin, and judges and justices will often include these because they describe things, situations or conditions in technical terms.

  • de jure: As applied by law; as set up by law. This is often used in three contexts: de jure government, de jure corporations or de jure segregation. De jure government is one that has legal legitimacy and is recognized by other states. A de jure corporation is one which has followed all legal provisions in the state that it exists to establish itself as a corporation. De jure segregation would be legalized segregation, or segregation of races set up explicitly by black-letter law.
  • de facto: As opposed to de jure, de facto means as a matter of fact, usually this is explicitly not set up by law (and very well may be illegal or illegitimate), but something that still exists none the less. So a de facto government would be one which is perhaps not recognized by others, but still has authority. De facto segregation is one which is not set up by law, but where races are still segregated in fact.
  • ipse dixit: A type of fiat statement, one which relies on the authority of the person who speaks it. Scalia famously lampooned against judicial fiat and said “he who lives by the ipse dixit dies by the ipse dixit.”
  • prima facie: literally meaning “on the first appearance;” Something taken at face value, assumed to be true unless it is proven false.To avoid dismissal, parties to cases will often have to provide a prima facie case, not undeniable proof but just something that proves to the judge that a case is there and worthy of further litigation.
  • dictum: A statement, comment or opinion that is not directly related to the holding of a case, and therefore has no binding authority as precedent. These are often asides, analogies or examples as way of illustration that help to make the judge’s case. Plural is dicta.
  • holding: As opposed to dicta, holdings are legal principle derived from cases. The part of an opinion that is binding as precedent, usually the sections where the law is applied to the facts of the case.
  • per se: As a nature of being, intrinsically, known without any need for proof. For example, in libel law, there are certain ideas you can communicate that are libel per se. These are things like saying a person has an venereal disease, or is a convicted felon. If you cannot prove truth, then you are subject to libel law because the content is simply assumed to be libelous.
  • per quod: In regard to slander, it means for the plaintiff to receive special damages they must provide proof; In regard to libel, a claim that requires additional proof in order to show culpability. This phrase generally denotes a harmful statement, but is not intrinsically libelous.


I hope these definitions helped to explain certain concepts that jurists often use swiftly and with impunity. As I find more, I’ll keep pushing these out to help make decisions more accessible.


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