This is what I hope is the first in a series of occasional posts about legal lingo to help demystify the legal system.

The law is full of jargon. A lot of it comes from Latin. That’s in part because our legal system is old. Though it has evolved over time, we inherited the basics of the English legal system when the colonists came over to the “New World” (that was already occupied by the Native inhabitants for thousands of years before). The English system relied on Latin because back in medieval days, Latin was the language of scholarship.

In addition, there’s also a French influence because of the Normans, who conquered England in 1066. In fact, some of the foundational concepts of our system come from French, including “attorney,” “jury/grand jury,” “plaintiff” and “defendant.”  

The site of the Battle of Hastings fought in southeast England in 1066 in which the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons, making William the Conqueror the King of England. If it wasn’t for the outcome of this battle, who knows what our legal system would look like now?

How our legal system developed is fascinating, but that’s an entirely different blog post.

Back to the lingo. A great example of Latin legal jargon is the term “motion in limine” (pronounced in-lim-in-ee). It literally means “motion at the start.” The “start” being referred to is the start of trial. Before trial, each side will file their motions in limine in which they ask the court to exclude evidence they view as improper.

Motions in limine are designed to exclude evidence that “is so prejudicial in its nature that the moving party should be spared the necessity of calling attention to it by objecting when it is offered during the trial.” Fenimore v. Drake Constr. Co., 87 Wn.2d 85, 91, 549 P.2d 483 (1976).

Here’s the language from the Fenimore case:

Motions in Limine from Fenimore case blurb

The judge has a hearing outside the presence of the jury, often before the jury has been selected, and makes a decision whether to grant the motion, deny the motion, or defer on the issue until it is developed at trial. Sometimes the motions are about irrelevant things like prior arrests, convictions, prior drug use, or prior unrelated injuries that have no bearing on the issues in a case. There’s almost always one about excluding discussion of whether someone does or does not have insurance, or prohibiting a lawyer from asking the juror to “stand in the shoes” of a particular party. Sometimes a party thinks an expert’s testimony should be limited in some way.

In theory, having the judge decide evidentiary issues before trial also helps streamline the trial to make it go faster. And motions in limine can help a party preserve an issue for appeal. Once a party has asked the trial court to exclude something, and the trial court denies the motion, the party does not need to object when it comes up at trial (though many lawyers still do).

Cover sheet to the motions in limine we filed in a civil murder case Karen Koehler and Furhad Sultani took to trial—and won—in March 2022.