Site Search | Site Index

Site Search | Site Index

Law Library News for February 3, 2003

Ann Hemmens, editor

Law Library News Archive


Litigation Latin

by Lee Sims, Reference Intern

In a case that is sui generis can a trial court issue an order sua sponte in which that court, on a pro forma basis, simply arrives at an ad hoc ruling thereby requiring the appeals court to send the case back for a trial de novo?

Some claim that Latin is a dead language. To the extent that it is no longer spoken on a day to day basis by any large population group (including the inhabitants of the Vatican) this is probably true. But the use of Latin words and phrases is alive and well in many professions including, most notably, medicine and the law.

As students of the law, whether we are 1Ls, professors, practicing lawyers, or librarians, we are constantly exposed to stray bits of Latin which have survived (quite nicely, thank you very much) in the legal vernacular since the Romans invented them. All of the Latin words and phrases used in the opening paragraph are a common part of the everyday study of law. So what does the opening paragraph mean?

The phrase sui generis translates as �of its own kind.� A case which is sui generis presents a one of a kind or unique issue. Such a case would, necessarily, have limited value as a precedent since, by its own terms, the legal issue presented has not only never been faced before but will never be faced again. Fact patterns are almost always unique in some respect and are not the proper subject of a declaration that a case is sui generis. It is the uniqueness of the legal issue, not the facts, that makes the use of the term proper.

Some courts erroneously use sui generis to mean �a case of first impression.� We know better.

A court which rules sua sponte is acting �on its own volition.� Sometimes a judge will make a ruling or issue an order which none of the parties have requested. It can be acting on its own motion to clarify, to correct, or even to prevent an injustice. This sometimes happens in the jurisdictional context. For example, a judge, having reviewed the initial pleadings in an interstate child custody case can, without waiting for a party to make a motion, dismiss the case because the proper court is in another state.

Most of us know that the term ad hoc means that something has been �made up� for the occasion. Consider the ad hoc excuse we gave when we arrived home late one night; it was made up on the spot. In the legal context, however, ad hoc means �for this thing� or �for this occasion.� Thus, an ad hoc decision by the court would be one limited to its facts and to the circumstances and, not unlike a sui generis case, often has dubious value as precedent. Some commentators think that the Supreme Court�s decision determining the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was ad hoc.

A pro forma decision is one that is made �according to form.� A court that approaches its job in a pro forma way may reach a decision but does so without actual consideration of the facts or merits. Such a court could be accused of just going through the motions (pun intended).

Sometimes an appeals court may send a case back to the trial court for a trial de novo. This means that the trial court must hear the case anew or, literally, �from new.� In effect, a new trial is ordered and the trial must begin again as if no proceedings ever took place.

So, let�s translate. In a

  1. case presenting a unique, one of a kind legal issue can a trial court
  2. acting on its own volition and without a motion from the parties, issue an order in which that court,
  3. without genuine consideration of the facts or law,
  4. simply arrives at its own made up solution to the problem presented thereby requiring the appeals court to send the case back for a
  5. new trial?

Who knows what the answer is? Ask a reference librarian and get started on your research.

Interested in more Latin in the law? In addition to the standard law dictionaries (Black�s Law Dictionary for example, makes extensive reference to Latin words and phrases), there are three books that give a well-rounded treatment of the use of Latin by lawyers:

  • Essential Latin for Lawyers, by Russ VerSteeg. K52.L37V47 at Classified Stacks. Most of the definitions for this piece were taken from this book
  • Latin for Lawyers. K52.L3L35 at Classified Stacks
  • Latin Words and Phrases for Lawyers, edited by R.S. Vasan. K54.L37 at Reference Office.

Japanese Databases Available at UW

by Rob Britt, East Asian Law Department

This is to encourage Japanese Law researchers to use "NACSIS-IR," a wonderful set of Japan Studies databases that for the time being are being provided to UW Law School IP addresses for FREE.

NACSIS-IR is provided by NII (National Institute of Informatics), a quasi-governmental body in Japan. Most of the databases are in Japanese, and require some language ability. However, I am willing to work with faculty and students with specific requests as needed. NACSIS-IR includes many databases of importance for Japanese legal research, such as:

  • Japanese Periodicals Index (Zasshi kiji sakuin, "ZASSAKU"). This wide-ranging index provided by the National Diet Library covers millions of articles in Japanese journals (including legal journals) from 1948 to the present (only humanities are covered from 1948-1974). Records for articles are hyperlinked to the record for the periodical title in "NACSIS Webcat," which gives holdings at Japanese institutions.
  • Directory of Researchers ("RES"). Information on research papers, subjects etc. of current academic researchers in Japan.
  • Dissertation Index
  • Academic Conference Papers
  • Current Contents of Academic Serials in Japan ("SOKUHO")

To access the free NACSIS-IR:

  1. Using your UW Internet access account, or one of the public terminals in the Law Library, point your browser to:
  2. Under "Access to NACSIS-IR (Site License Service),� select either "Webfront English" (English interface) or "Webfront Nihongo" (Japanese interface)
  3. Under "Service Menu," select �NACSIS-IR.�
  4. Follow the instructions on the "Database Selection" page
  5. Search the database(s) you have selected

NII is currently deciding whether to continue to offer this service for free to Japan Studies researchers outside of Japan (there is a fee for the service inside Japan). They plan to make the decision before April of 2003. I am the contact person at the Law School for NII. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions regarding access to or use of the NACSIS-IR databases. If I cannot answer your questions, I will try to find the answer. I am also eager to provide feedback to NII, with the hope that they decide to continue this valuable free service (Rob Britt;