Eleven Types of Legal Motions in U.S. Law

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

For a court to take most actions on an issue that is in dispute, either party in a case must ask the court to decide on that issue. When a plaintiff, prosecutor, or defendant asks the court or judge to rule on a specific issue, that request is known as a motion. Legal motions are one of the most common facets of the American justice system and they ensure that controversial or disputed issues related to a case can be settled quickly and efficiently so that the case itself can ultimately be resolved in an effective manner. Different motions are used at different points in a trial, including before the trial begins, during it, and after a verdict has been delivered. While there are lots of different types of legal motions, the ones below tend to stand out for being both very common and very important to individual cases.

  1. Motion to dismiss

A motion to dismiss, which is more popularly known as "throwing out" a case, is requested when one side (usually the defendant) contends that the plaintiff's claim is not one on which the court can rule. In other words, when a motion to dismiss happens, the moving party is not contesting the facts as presented by the other party, but merely saying that the claim at issue is not a legal one on which the court has any say. A motion to dismiss is one of the most important motions to understand in U.S. procedural law. The moving party in such a case may concede that the facts of the case are true, but that the case should nonetheless be dismissed because there is no legal issue presented in those facts that the court can rule on. This motion helps ensure that disputes that involve no legal issue do not end up wasting the court's time and resources. In some cases, there may even be a legal issue at stake but the statute of limitations has expired, meaning the court can no longer deliver a verdict. Additionally, a motion to dismiss may be filed if the defendant waives his or her right to a speedy trial, has been granted immunity or a pardon, or if that defendant had been previously tried for the same offense, which is known as double jeopardy.

  1. Discovery motions

During the discovery process both parties to a lawsuit or case will collect information and evidence that they can then use to build their case. The discovery process, like its name suggests, is when the prosecution and defense make efforts to discover all the facts of the case. Both parties can request information from one another to help establish the facts of the case. A number of different motions can be used to ensure that both sides are able to handle the discovery process to the best of their abilities. If the other party fails to respond to a request for information, for example, then a motion to compel discovery of that information could force that party to provide a response. Another motion to compel discovery could be used if the party responds to the request for information, but its response is vague or incomplete. Failing to comply with either motion could result in the offending party being held in contempt.

  1. Motion to compel

When making a motion to compel, the moving party is asking the judge to use the power of the court to essentially force another party to do something that he or she has so far refused to do. As noted above, motions to compel can be used during the discovery process to ensure that both parties have full access to the facts of the case. For example, if the plaintiff refuses to answer questions in a deposition, the defendant may file a motion to compel the plaintiff to answer those questions. If that motion is granted and the plaintiff still refuses to answer the questions then he or she may face contempt of court charges. Of course, motions to compel can also be used when the trial gets underway, such as if a witness refuses to answer a question while testifying, and they are not limited solely to the discovery process.

  1. Motion to strike

A motion to strike is requested when one of the parties wants something removed from the court record. This motion is usually requested when the record contains information or language that is not admissible evidence. A party may request a motion to strike if the language being removed from the record is redundant, vague, scandalous, immaterial, or impertinent. Furthermore, a party in a case can request that a vague statement be removed from the record and be replaced with a statement that is more specific and clear.

  1. Motion for summary judgment

A motion for summary judgment is perhaps the most frequently made motion. While not always available in all cases, the motion for summary judgment is made before the trial begins. This motion asks the judge to make a decision on the case without going to trial. Such a motion can only occur if none of the facts of the case are in dispute, thus all that needs to be decided is a final ruling on the case. If available, a motion for summary judgment can save both sides plenty of time and money. While a motion for summary judgment and motion to dismiss are often confused with one another, they are not the same thing. A motion to dismiss results in the case being thrown out altogether and no verdict being issued. With a motion for summary judgment, however, the court and both parties agree that there is a legal issue that the court can rule on. For a summary judgment to be issued there can be no dispute about the material facts of the case and the party filing the motion must be entitled as a matter of law to a judgment. A summary judgment is most often issued when time has run out on the discovery process, meaning that neither side can gather any more evidence to help their case.

  1. Motion for a directed verdict

Another motion that shares features with a motion for summary judgment and a motion to dismiss, a motion for a directed verdict is one whereby one party (in this case, the defense) asks the court to end the case. A motion for a directed verdict is made by the defense after the prosecution has already rested its case. This motion argues that the prosecution has failed to prove its case and that because of that the defense does not need to present any evidence. A motion for a directed verdict is essentially the same as asking the court to acquit the defendant because there is not a strong enough case to convict him or her.

  1. Motion for nolle prosequi

If the prosecution cannot prove its case or there is a fatal flaw in its evidence then it can be the prosecution itself that requests the court to no longer pursue charges against the defendant. This type of request is called a motion for nolle prosequi, which literally means that the prosecution has decided not to prosecute. This motion is often filed if new evidence has come to light either proving the defendant's innocence or exposing a serious flaw in the prosecution's case. A motion for nolle prosequi is basically the prosecution asking that the judge throw out the case because the defendant is either innocent or there is clearly not enough evidence to lead to a conviction.

  1. Motion in limine

A motion in limine concerns what evidence can and cannot be presented to a jury in court. Instead of risking a jury being exposed to prejudicial evidence that may later be found to be inadmissible, a motion in limine ensures that such evidence is not presented to the jury in the first place. A motion in limine helps ensure that a defendant receives a fair trial, which is less assured if the jury is simply told to disregard evidence that it has already been exposed to. For example, in a criminal trial the prosecution may mention a defendant's previous conviction for an offense that has nothing to do with the offense currently being tried. While the defense may argue that mentioning that previous conviction should not be allowed because it is not relevant to the current case, the jury will nonetheless have already been told that such a conviction exists even if the judge sustains the objection and instructs the jury to disregard the information. A motion in limine ensures that that information is not presented to the jury in the first place. If either party violates the motion in limine then a mistrial may be declared.

There are three types of motions in limine: inclusionary, exclusionary, and preclusionary. As their names suggest, when an inclusionary motion in limine is being made then the party is asking the court that certain evidence be specifically included in the trial. An exclusionary motion in limine, meanwhile, asks that information be excluded and kept from the jury (such as a defendant's previous conviction, as discussed above). Finally, a preclusionary motion in limine can preclude potentially inadmissible evidence from being included.

  1. Motion for judgment n.o.v.

A motion for judgment n.o.v. (non obstante veredicto) is made after the jury has delivered its verdict. A motion for judgment n.o.v. Is made by the defendant and asks the judge to reverse the verdict delivered by the jury. This is a rare motion that is only made if there are no reasonable grounds on which the jury could have reached its verdict, such as if the jury delivers a guilty verdict despite evidence that clearly proves that the defendant could not have committed the offense in question. Such a motion can only be used to overturn a verdict of guilty, which is why it is filed by the defense. For example, if a jury delivers a verdict of not guilty the prosecution cannot file a motion for judgment n.o.v. asking that the judge change that verdict to guilty.

  1. Motion to set aside judgment

A motion to set aside judgment is another motion that can be filed after a judgment or verdict in a case has been delivered. This motion is a request for the court to nullify or vacate a judgment or verdict that had previously been reached in the case. Such a motion is generally filed if new evidence comes to light after the case has ended that may cast doubt on the original verdict. As such, a motion to set aside judgment cannot usually be made on grounds which were already considered by the court during the original trial. A unique aspect of a motion to set aside judgment is that it can be filed long after a verdict or judgment has been issued, even years afterward.

  1. Motion for a new trial

A motion for a new trial is another motion that is filed after a verdict has been delivered. Either party can make a motion for a new trial if they believe that a significant error was made during the trial that necessitates a new trial. For example, evidence may have been introduced during the trial which had already been excluded because of a motion in limine. A motion for a new trial is not a request for the verdict to be changed or overturned. Indeed, the new trial could lead to the same verdict as the first trial. In many jurisdictions, and unlike a motion to set aside judgment, there are time limits for filing a motion for a new trial and missing these time limits could result in the trial's verdict automatically being allowed to stand.

Motions are ubiquitous in both civil and criminal trials and they are essential to keeping the courts moving. Motions can be filed before, during, and even after the trial has taken place. These motions help establish the parameters by which a fair trial can be best ensured and for placing greater confidence in the justice system. Furthermore, certain motions allow that errors that may have otherwise resulted in a wrongful conviction can be reversed. While there are many diverse types of motions, the ones described above are especially common and especially important in ensuring that justice is administered properly and fairly.

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