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As I was perusing an article about a topical court case recently, I realized that to better understand what I was reading I would have to define some key terms. I’m familiar with the term “amicus brief,” but wanted to learn a little bit more about what these documents are all about. Here are some of the things I was interested to learn about amicus briefs:

Some people say that amicus briefs come from a larger concept – amicus curiae – which translates in Latin to “friend of the court.” Others argue that the term amicus curiae is less of a conceptual entity and more of a concrete definition of a person technically unrelated to a court case, but who is considered a “friend of the court” for their willingness to participate in the hearing. For instance, according to Joe Carter of the Acton Institute Power Blog, “An amicus brief is a learned treatise submitted by an amicus curiae, someone who […] has not been solicited by any of the parties to assist a court.”

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Conversely, according to one of wiseGeek’s “clear answers for common questions,” “The tradition of accepting amicus briefs comes from a larger concept, the amicus curiae,” of the ways in which amicus briefs evolved from a tradition of the public’s relationship with the court and judicial system.

The official definition, according to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, of “amicus curiae” is:

“One who assists a court by furnishing information or advice regarding questions of law or fact. A person (or other entity, such as a state government) who is not a party to a particular lawsuit but nevertheless has a strong interest in it may be allowed, by leave of the court, to file an amicus curiae brief, a statement of particular views on the subject matter of the lawsuit. Such briefs are often filed in cases involving public-interest matters.”

Basically, an amicus brief is a document filed by a “friend of the court” – anyone interested in advocating on behalf of the plaintiff or defendant. Once an amicus brief is filed with a court, which it can only be done by an attorney, the court can decide whether or not to accept it, and in some cases, the author of the amicus brief will be asked to testify, provide an academic evaluation of the evidence if qualified, or even contribute to the closing arguments in rare cases.

High profile lawsuits that concern the general public often receive input from amicus curiae. For example, Mr. Carter details the massive influx of amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court on both sides of the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby case. The case, which concerns the decision made by Hobby Lobby to challenge the HHS contraceptive-abortifacient mandate, is one that many members of the general public have taken an interest in. In this specific case, more than 80 amicus briefs were filed with the Supreme Court on both sides, indicating the way in which the general public has become concerned with the court hearings.

This is just one current example of the ways in which courts must evaluate and assess the relevance of amicus briefs. Learn more about amicus briefs from Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute.