See also: Amicus curiae brief

An amicus curiae is, at least semantically, a "friend of the court." The amicus is not a party to the case, but a person, organisation, or government agency that wishes to express a view on an issue arising in a particular case. Sometimes, an amicus will be invited aboard by one of the parties to the case; in other cases, the court may decide to hear the opinion of an amicus on an issue not addressed by either of the parties.

The rôle of the amicus is twofold1. On the one hand, an amicus generally supports one side or the other, and makes an argument that is openly in favour of one of the parties (the cover of an amicus curiae brief usually reads "BRIEF FOR AMICUS CURIAE XXX IN SUPPORT OF APPELLANT" or somesuch). On the other, the interest of the amicus curiae (spelled out in a section of the brief entitled "INTEREST OF AMICUS CURIAE) goes beyond the specific case in which the amicus brief is submitted. An amicus is arguing not so much for the party it is supporting as for a specific proposition of law. The plaintiff or defendant generally wants to win the case on whatever grounds are available; the amicus seeks to have the plaintiff or defendant win the case on the specific grounds favoured by the amicus. This means that the amicus will generally tend to argue in terms of the big picture - the policy implications of a decision on the grounds advanced by one party or the other, the effect of the decision on the development of the law, and other more wide-reaching concerns. This is often invaluable to a court, which must not only reach the appropriate decision in the case before it, but also make good precedent for the future.

Sometimes, the court itself will decide it needs to hear from a third party commentator on a particular issue. This does not happen often, but it has occurred in cases in which the parties are in agreement on a particular issue that the court considers important enough to resolve. While many things can be disposed of on the basis of concessions made by one party or the other, important legal or constitutional issues must be decided by the court on the merits if they arise. Thus, a court will occasionally invite an individual or organisation to make an argument that neither party is submitting. The best recent example of this is the U.S. Supreme Court's Dickerson v. United States, 530 US 428 (2000). In Dickerson, the petitioner, Dickerson, had been convicted using statements he gave to the police in custody without having been read his Miranda rights. A federal statute (18 USC § 3501) authorised the admission of any statements, provided they were made "voluntarily," even if the Miranda warnings had not been given. The Court was faced with the question of whether the Miranda warnings were constitutionally required. Neither the U.S. government nor (obviously) Dickerson argued that the Constitution did not require Miranda warnings. The Court, however, felt that the issue was important enough that it should be argued even though neither party disputed it. So, the Justices invited a law professor - who had apparently been waiting his entire life to do this - to argue before the Court that Miranda warnings could be dispensed with without violating the Constitution2.
1 It should be noted that an amicus is not suing on behalf of a client. An amicus curiae merely expresses an opinion on someone else's lawsuit.
2 Ultimately, the Court held that the Constitution required Miranda warnings after all.

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