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Legal Words Defined


Selected court and legal terms used in Delaware Superior Court

Acquit—To find a criminal defendant not guilty through a verdict or because the evidence is insufficient, or because the charges have been dropped or dismissed.

Admissible—Evidence that is relevant to the case, and is material, will be usually be permitted to be presented to the jury in most instances. The judge may have to make some decisions regarding whether certain evidence is admissible under the Delaware Rules of Evidence, Rules of Superior Court Procedure, and decisions from prior cases that he or she may be bound to follow.

Adversarial System—This is the method American courts use to arrive a resolution in a legal case. The parties in a case tell their sides of a case to a judge and/or jury who arrive at a decision.

Affidavit—A written statement or declaration of facts which has been sworn to as true in front of someone authorized to administer oaths such as a notary public or a member of the Bar of the State of Delaware.

Affirm—To uphold a decision made in another court in a case on appeal, by a judicial officer in a court that has the authority to decide the appeal.

Appeal—This is a legal process used to review the final decision in a criminal case in Delaware as defined by the State Constitution, Superior Court Rules, and the Delaware Code. The conviction and sentence of a defendant in Superior Court may be appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. Decisions regarding motions decided after the conviction may also be appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. An appeal in a Superior Court criminal case is filed by providing a notice of appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court within 30 days of the date of the sentence, or within 30 days from the entry on the Superior Court docket of a decision regarding a motion filed after the conviction. Supreme Court Rules, and the Delaware Code, available in public libraries throughout the State, should be reviewed carefully before submitting an appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court, to make certain that all of the filing requirements are followed. The guidance of a Delaware attorney is invaluable. Appeals to Superior Court are covered in a separate section of this document.

Appellant—The appellant is the party who initiates the appeal of the judgment or decision of a court by filing a notice of appeal in the appropriate court.

Appellate Court—The appellate court is the court with the authority to hear and decide an appeal. An appellate court is said to possess the jurisdiction to handle the appeal, though the jurisdiction, or power to hear the appeal, is granted to the court by the State Constitution and the Delaware Code. One must 'perfect' an appeal in order for the appellate court to be able to review the decision of the court being appealed from. Perfection of an appeal requires that the proper steps be taken to allow the appellate court to hear the case, such as filing the notice of appeal within the proper amount of time, as set forth by Statute and/or court rule.

Arraignment—This is the first appearance in Superior Court of the defendant after indictment. The defendant is provided with a copy of the indictment, informed of the charges against him or her, and advised of the right to an attorney and to trial. At arraignment, the defendant also formally enters a plea before the court of guilty or not guilty. Bail is set at this time, and bail which may have been previously set is reviewed. Under Superior Court Rule 10(c), the defendant may waive the opportunity to be present for this initial appearance if represented by an attorney, and if bail has already been set on all of the charges listed in the indictment. The attorney is required to file a written plea of not guilty with the court in a timely manner. The written pleading must state that the defendant has been made aware of the charges against him or her, that the next appearance date is know to the defendant, that a plea of not guilty is being entered, and that the person(s) responsible for bail has been informed of the filing of the written pleading.

Bench—The seat where the judge, or judicial officer sits in the courtroom. If a defendant waives the right to a jury trial in Superior Court, and proceeds with only the judge hearing the case, the proceeding is known as a 'bench trial'.

Brief—This is a written statement prepared by a lawyer to explain the facts and applicable law of a case in court.

Burden of Proof—When facts are in dispute in a case, one party may have the responsibility of providing evidence to persuade the judge or jury to believe their version of the facts. Usually, the party that brings the case into court has the burden of proof. The absolute truth about what happened is not what needs to be shown. In a civil case, the plaintiffs normally have to show that it is more probable than not that something happened the way they said it did. In a criminal case, the burden of proof is greater, and the prosecutor has to prove 'beyond a reasonable doubt' that the defendant committed the crime charged.

Case Law—Many of the laws have been written by the Delaware Legislature, the United States Congress, or by agencies that have been granted the power to make regulations. The courts interpret these statutory laws and apply those laws to the particular facts of the case they are deciding. There are previous decisions from courts which interpret many of the legal issues that may arise in a case; previous judicial opinions are known as case law. A judge, in most instances, will seriously consider decisions from previous cases when deciding a particular issue.

Capias [kap-ee-us] —Latin for 'that you take'. A capias is a writ issued by a judge requesting that the sheriff take someone into custody, and hold the person until he or she is brought to court before a judge, so that the person can be dealt with by the court. In a criminal case in Superior Court, a capias is normally requested because the defendant failed to appear for court. It is also requested when a defendant is in violation of a condition of probation; the probation officer asks the court to bring the defendant before the court to answer for the failure to follow the condition of probation. A capias is similar to a warrant in that a law enforcement agent, upon discovering that there is an outstanding capias upon a person, is authorized to take that person into custody.

Contempt of Court—There are essentially two types of contempt: 1) Being rude or disrespectful to the judge, or other attorneys, or causing a disturbance in the courtroom, particularly after being warned by the judge; and 2) willful failure to obey an order of the court.

Continuance—A rescheduling of a court proceeding is known as a continuance. A continuance must be granted by a judicial officer of Superior Court.

Conviction—The result of a trial or the entry of a plea which finds the defendant guilty of criminal charges, with the subsequent entry of a judgment or sentence.

Crime—An action in violation of a law of the state, county, or a municipality, where the legislative body of that government has classified the action as an offense against the community. A crime in Delaware may be a violation, misdemeanor, or felony, depending upon the statute used in the filing of charges in the complaint, information, or indictment. A failure to act when required by law may also be considered a crime under Delaware Statutes. One example would be the failure of someone who has been convicted as a sex offender to register as a sex offender with the State of Delaware.

Defendant—The person accused of committing a crime in a criminal case.

De novo—A form of appeal or second trial. Latin for 'anew' or s starting over, as in a trial de novo. For example, a decision in Alderman's Court or the Justice of the Peace Court may be appealed to Superior Court.

Deposition—The taking and recording of testimony of a witness under oath before a court reporter in a place away from the courtroom before trial. A deposition is part of permitted pre—trial discovery, set up by an attorney for one of the parties to a lawsuit demanding the sworn testimony of the opposing party (defendant or plaintiff), a witness to an event, or an expert intended to be called at trial by the opposition.

Discovery—Pretrial procedures used by the defense and prosecution in a criminal case to disclose information to each other regarding the factual circumstances involving the criminal activity, and the investigation that lead to the filing of criminal charges. These procedures are governed by court rules, and by decisions in previous criminal cases. In most instances, the documents and other materials involved in the discovery process are not filed with the court, but are rather exchanged directly between the prosecutors and the defense attorneys. When such an exchange takes place, a notice of service of the discovery, but not the actual discovery materials, is sent to the court.

Dismissal—An order or judgment of the court which acts as a final disposition to dismiss or drop the charges prior to trial or conviction.

Docket—The court docket in Superior Court is a document prepared by the prothonotary's office which lists the paperwork filed with the clerk's office in the case, and generally describes the judicial activities in a case. The court docket normally accompanies the transcript of the record of a case to the Delaware Supreme Court on appeal. It is also used by courts and agencies in other states, and by the federal government as evidence of the status and disposition of Delaware criminal charges.

Evidence—Testimony, documents, material objects, and other things presented by a party in a case, normally while questioning witnesses, which are used to prove or disprove the truth of a fact. The Delaware Rules of Evidence, Superior Court Rules, and previous case law guide the judge in his or her decision to allow a party to introduce specific evidence in a case. Objections may be made by a party to the introduction of some evidence. The objections will often be accompanied by a reference to a specific rule of evidence or court rule, or prior legal case. The judge will decide whether or not that evidence can be presented to the jury, or considered by them when the jury makes their final decision on a case.

Expungement—When a person is arrested for charges in Delaware, those charges remain on the person's criminal record even if the person is found not guilty, or the charges are dropped by the attorney general's office, or the charges are dismissed. A person can file a petition for Expungement of Criminal Records in Superior Court. The attorney general's office reviews and can respond to the petition, and a hearing may be required under the procedure. The expungement process is a civil procedure since the person filing the petition is the plaintiff, and the State of Delaware is the defendant. View forms and instructions

Felony—A crime of a more serious nature than those designated by the legislature as misdemeanors or violations. In Delaware, the statute a person is charged with violating will normally indicate whether the offense is considered a felony or misdemeanor. The information or indictment will also normally state whether the offense is a felony or misdemeanor. Under the laws of Delaware, a person convicted of a felony loses some civil rights, such as the right to vote or hold political office.

Foreman [Jury]—The member of the jury, chosen first, acts as the chairman and spokesperson for the jury.

Judgment—The final decision or opinion of the court on a matter brought before it. The use of the word judgment may also refer to the entry on the records of the court of an outstanding debt owed from one party to another.

Jurisdiction—The power of a court to hear and decide cases. Superior Court has statewide original jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases, except equity cases, over which the Court of Chancery has exclusive jurisdiction, and domestic relations matters, which jurisdiction is vested with the Family Court. The court's authority to award damages is not subject to a monetary maximum. The court hears cases of personal injury, libel and slander and contract claims. The court also tries cases involving medical malpractice, legal malpractice, property cases involving mortgage foreclosures, mechanics liens, condemnations, and appeals related to landlord—tenant disputes and appeals from the Automobile Arbitration Board. The court has exclusive jurisdiction over felonies and drug offenses (except most felonies and drug offenses involving minors and except possession of marijuana cases). Superior Court has jurisdiction over involuntary commitments of persons with mental conditions. The court serves as an intermediate appellate court, hearing appeals on the record from the Court of Common Pleas, Family Court (adult criminal), and more than 50 administrative agencies including the Industrial Accident Board, Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board, Zoning and Adjustment Boards, and other quasi—judicial bodies. Appeals from Alderman's Courts and Justice of the Peace Courts are heard on trials de novo (second trials) in Superior Court. Appeals from Superior Court are argued on the record before the Supreme Court.

Impeach—In a criminal case, to impeach is to challenge the credibility or validity of the testimony of a witness.

Misdemeanor—A crime of a less serious nature than a felony, yet more serious than a violation. In Delaware, the statute a person is charged with violating will normally indicate whether the offense is considered a felony, a misdemeanor, or a violation.

Motion—An application made to the court, usually by a party to a case, requesting that some action be taken, or that an order be issued on behalf of the applicant.

Nolle Prosequi [nol-ee pros-i-kwahy] —No prosecution. A notice of nolle prosequi or nolle prose may be issued by the attorney general's office to the court, informing the court that they are formally dropping a charge, or charges. The reason for the nolle prosequi is listed upon the notice. The attorney general's office cannot file a nolle prosequi on a charge after a conviction has been entered on that charge unless they first receive permission from the court.

Oath—An express acknowledgment made by a person that he or she is aware of being bound in conscience, and by laws against perjury, to tell the truth while testifying.

Opinion—A decision of the court in which the law which applied to the case is explained, and the reasons for the decision are expressed.

Pardon—An unconditional pardon by the governor fully restores all civil rights to the person pardoned, civil rights include, but are not limited to, the right to vote and the the right to serve on a jury if selected.

Parole—A conditional release from prison of a person who has served some of a sentence in prison. One cannot be sentenced directly to parole, and parole decisions are made by the executive branch with the opportunity for input from the sentencing judge.

Plaintiff—The party who initiates a lawsuit by filing a complaint with the prothonotary's office (clerk of the court) against the defendant(s) demanding damages, performance and/or court determination of rights.

Plea—The answer of the defendant to the charge or charges brought against him or her by the state is known as the plea. It is the standard practice that after the judicial officer informs the defendant of the charges brought against him or her during the arraignment, to ask the defendant for his or her answer to the charges. If the answer is 'not guilty' the case will move forward to case reviews and possibly then to trial.

Plea Agreement or Plea Bargain—Plea bargaining is the process where the defendant and the prosecution come to an agreement as to a disposition of charges, subject to the court's approval. A plea agreement is also the name for the paperwork that lists the details involved in the agreement. Charges are often dropped or reduced as a result of a plea bargain. There are court rules and previous case decisions which the judge follows in deciding whether to allow a defendant and the state to enter into an agreement on a plea. The judge will ask the defendant questions regarding his or her entry into the plea agreement to make certain that the defendant is knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently making an informed decision.

Probation—Levels of supervision from intensive through administrative that the defendant may be sentenced. The offenders on probation are monitored by a probation agency. In many instances, while on probation, offenders are required to fulfill certain conditions of their supervision such as payment of fines, fees or court costs; participation in treatment programs; and adherence to specific rules of conduct while in the community. Failure to comply with any conditions can result in incarceration.

Problem-Solving Courts—Problem-solving courts seek to improve court outcomes for victims, litigants, and our communities. These specialized courts have been driven by the desire of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and our other justice partners to respond more effectively to crime problems as well as to the individual problems that often fuel crime such as drug addiction and mental illness. In Superior Court the courts include Drug Court, Reentry Court, and the Veterans Treatment Court.

Pro se [pro say] — A party to a lawsuit who represents themselves without an attorney is appearing in the case pro se, also referred to as self—represented.

Prosecutor—This is the public officer who takes responsibility on behalf of the state for bringing the criminal charges into Superior Court and seeing them through to a resolution. Often, the name of a prosecutor for a case appears on the indictment or information.

Subpoena [suh-pee-nuh] —A command issued by the court to appear before the court on a certain date and time.

Subpoena Duces Tecum [suh-pee-nuh doo-seyz tey-kuh m] —A command issued by the court to appear before the court, and bring books, papers, and other things specified in the subpoena.

Summons—A notice sent to a defendant informing him or her that the listed charges have brought in Superior Court, and requesting that he or she appear at court on the date indicated to answer the charges.

Testimony—Evidence given by a witness under oath or affirmation in court, or through an affidavit or a deposition.

Transcript—A written, printed, or typed copy of something is a transcript. A transcript of the testimony would be a typed copy of testimony in a case usually prepared by the court reporters in a case. A transcript of the record would be copies of all the paperwork filed in a case through the prothonotary's office [clerk's office].

True Bill—An indictment that has been presented to the grand jury, and is found to have sufficient probable cause on the basis of evidence presented, to hold a person for trial in Superior Court, is know as a true bill.

Verdict—The decision in the case as to whether the defendant is found guilty or not guilty, as determined by the jury, or the judge in a non—jury case.

Victim—A person who is the object of the crime.

Violation—A crime of a less serious nature than a felony or misdemeanor. In Delaware, the statute a person is charged with normally states whether it is a violation, a misdemeanor, or a felony.

Writ—Written order of a judge requiring specific action by the person or entity to whom the writ is directed.

Warrant—Order or writ of a court which directs a law enforcement officer to arrest and bring a person before the judge, such as a person who is charged with a crime; convicted of a crime, but who failed to appear for sentencing; owes a fine; or, is in contempt of court. A 'bench warrant' is an order to appear issued by the court when a person does not appear for a hearing. A 'search warrant' is an court order permitting a law enforcement officer to search a particular premises and/or person for certain types of evidence, based on a declaration by a law enforcement official.