DEFINITION of 'Petition'

A petition is a legal document formally requesting a court order. Petitions, along with complaints, are considered pleadings at the onset of a lawsuit.


When a lawsuit is filed, it moves through a series of stages before it is finally resolved. In civil cases, the first stage has the plaintiff file a petition or complaint with the court. The document outlines the legal basis for the lawsuit. The defendant receives a copy of the document and a notice to appear in court. At this point, the plaintiff and defendant are given the opportunity to settle the case privately or use an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism rather than go to trial. The courts may also provide a summary judgment. If the case goes to trial the judge will ultimately levy a verdict, and either parties to the suit may choose to appeal the court’s decision.

While sometimes used interchangeably, petitions and complaints are not the same. A petition is provided to a court by a petitioner, while a complaint is filed by a plaintiff. The party that the lawsuit is filed against is called the respondent when a petition is filed, and the defendant in the case of a complaint. Plaintiffs file a complaint when they are seeking damages from the defendant, or when they want the courts to compel the defendant to start (or stop) a particular action. On the other hand, rather than ask the courts to compel the defendant to perform a particular action, a petition asks the court provide a court order.

Court orders may include dismissing a case, reducing bail, or providing a continuance. One of the more notable use of petitions is the appeal. An appeal is a form of court order in which one party in a lawsuit asks the courts to review a verdict once the verdict is made. The rules for appeal may vary between state and federal courts, but typically begins with the filing of a petition to appeal. Similar to how a petition outlines the legal reasons for a court order, a petition to appeal outlines the reasons why a verdict should be reviewed by an appellate court. A petition to appeal can be filed by either the respondent or the petitioner, and, in some instances, both parties may file for an appeal.

An appeal requests that a court review the legal issues surrounding the case, rather than the facts of the case that were presented to a jury. In the United States, appeals of lower court rulings can ultimately lead to a case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, though the Supreme Court hears a small number of petitions each year. In 2009, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which focused on campaign spending by organizations. The court held that campaign spending was considered a form of speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that organizations, such as nonprofits or unions, and businesses were allowed to spend money on political issues without government interference. The case reached the Supreme Court after Citizens United issued a petition of appeal. The Supreme Court’s decision can be reversed by a future court judgment, or if a Constitutional amendment addressing the issue of campaign finance is passed.