In the United States’ legal system, a motion is a formal request for the court to make a decision about something related to a case. Motions can be made for a wide variety of purposes, such as to have a trial postponed, to have a previously made order modified, to sanction (or punish) an attorney, or even to have the case dismissed. Most motions must be made in writing, and require a hearing before a decision can be made by the court. To explore this concept, consider the following motion definition.

Definition of Motion


  1. A formal request for a court, or a judge, to issue an order, make a ruling, or the like.


1350-1400       Middle English (to request, petition)

What is a Motion

When someone files a lawsuit or other legal action, there is often a complex process of obtaining information, and trying to keep the situation from getting worse before a court can decide in anyone’s favor. For this reason, the path to trial is rarely a straight line. If either party wants the judge to make a decision, or issue an order during the process, such as prohibiting a party in a business dispute from selling off company assets, to a temporary order for spousal support, the request is made in the form of a motion.

A motion is a formal, written request that specifies to the court what the party wishes the judge to do. The motion must clearly state the reasons for the request, and provide whatever information the judge may need to make the decision. When a motion is made, the other party has an opportunity to oppose the request, and a hearing is often held to ensure the judge hears both sides before making a decision.

The Process of Making a Motion

Once a legal proceeding has been initiated, whether civil or criminal, the court must follow certain rules designed to ensure it remains a neutral party. For this reason, the court cannot initiate an action, or make a ruling on something that has not been brought up by either of the parties.

For example:

Howard and Martha are getting a divorce. During the proceedings, the judge becomes aware that Martha has a very low income of about $1,000 per month, while Howard lives on his bountiful income as a surgeon. The judge feels that Martha should be receiving spousal support, at least temporarily until a permanent order can be made, but her attorney has not requested it. The court cannot order spousal support on its own initiative, but in this example, a motion for spousal support must be made by one of the parties.

The process of making a motion is specific to the courts in each jurisdiction, and is spelled out in the Rules of Court, which can be found on each court’s website, or obtained from the court clerk’s office. While it is sometimes permissible for a motion to be made verbally during trial, most motions must be made in writing.

The motion must be filed with the court clerk, and a copy legally served on the opposing party (called the “non-moving party”). The opposing party then has a certain period of time in which to file an opposition to the motion with the court, a copy of which must be served on the party who filed the motion (called the “moving party”).

Documents to Prepare with a Motion

Many legal processes involve certain motions that are very commonly made, so the court has pre-printed documents that can be filed when making those motions. For example, a motion to modify child support is a form provided by most family courts that can be filled out, with form fields and check boxes, to streamline the process. When pre-printed motion forms are available, the court also makes the response forms available for the opposing party.

Whether a moving party files a motion using a pre-printed form, or prepares a motion that is typed on pleading paper, there are other documents to prepare with that motion. In many jurisdictions, when certain motions are filed, a blank court order form must be included in the document package, and when it is served on the opposing party, a blank response form must be included. It is important to check the rules of the court in which the matter is filed for specifics on which documents to prepare with a motion.

Serving a Motion

In order for the legal process to be fair, all parties to a legal action must be kept advised of every step, every request or motion, and every decision. In order for the court to be sure the parties are actually advising one another, and providing copies of important documents, it requires a certain process of service be adhered to, and that proof be filed with the court. As an example, the rules for service of process in federal cases can be found in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 5.

This begins with the delivery of a set of legal documents directly to the person or entity being sued. This is known as “service of process.” Once the lawsuit or other action has been initiated, serving a motion or other documents may be done by mail. When serving a motion, it is permissible to use personal delivery or mail. In a few jurisdictions, such documents may be served by email or fax.

Whether documents are personally delivered, or sent by mail, fax, or email, the person actually serving the documents must sign a “Proof of Service,” or “Affidavit of Service” form, and file it with the court. This Proof of Service document provides the date, time, and method of service, as well as a listing of each document included. The document must also specify the name and address of the person to whom the documents were sent.

Motion Hearing

When a motion is submitted to the court, it must include supporting affidavits and other evidence, such as documents, photos, recordings, and other things to support the request. In some cases, the judge may make a decision based solely on the information provided with the motion, and with the opposition to the motion provided by the non-moving party.

In other circumstances, a hearing is required. Whether or not a hearing is required varies by jurisdiction and type of case, and this information is provided in the Rules of Court. In the example of a motion that does not require a hearing, the judge may decide that a hearing is necessary in order to make a fair decision.

When a motion hearing is held, the parties, or their attorneys, must appear in court to argue their cases. Even though the judge has been provided with the same information that would be provided for a non-hearing motion, being able to ask questions, view evidence in a different light, and hear from witnesses, may give him or her a more clear idea of the circumstances. When the court makes a ruling, whether with or without a motion hearing, the order is issued in writing. Very often, written decisions include an explanation of how the court arrived at its decision.

Motion Example in Murder Trial

In July, 1994, the court found that there was enough evidence for retired football player, O.J. Simpson, to be put on trial for the murders of his estranged wife, Nichole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. On June 12, 1994, police found the victims’ brutally murdered bodies outside Nichole’s condominium. They later went to Mr. Simpson’s home to notify him of the murders, but got no answer at the security gate. Officers could see lights on in the house, upstairs and down, and there were cars parked in the driveway, leading them to believe someone was home.

As they waited, attempting to get hold of Simpson, they noticed blood on the door of a white Ford Bronco parked at the curb. What they believed were blood droplets led away from the vehicle toward the house, leading officers to believe there was an emergency going on in the home. They then went onto the property, searching for people. As police searched for witnesses or others in need of help, they found certain items of evidence, including blood in the foyer of Simpson’s home, and in the master bathroom.

Simpson’s attorneys filed a motion to suppress the evidence found by police during that visit, when they did not have a search warrant. Robert Shapiro, one of Mr. Simpson’s attorneys, argued that the police had violated Simpson’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, as they had not obtained a search warrant until they had been on his property nearly six hours.

The police have the authority to enter private property in exigent circumstances, which means if they feel there is an emergency, or other reason to believe there was not time to obtain a warrant. The issue for the court to determine in the motion hearing was whether there was a legitimate reason for police to believe an emergency existed, making it legal for them to enter the property. It then needed to determine whether the evidence collected was found in plain sight, or whether they actually searched the premises illegally.

After the motion hearing, the judge took some time to consider the evidence and testimony, and to research the issue in case law. Ultimately, the court ruled that the police had entered Simpson’s property truly believing an emergency might exist, and that they had not searched for evidence, but found certain items that were in plain sight.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Affidavit – A written statement made under oath, for use as evidence in court.
  • Exigent Circumstance – An emergency situation requiring law enforcement officers to act swiftly to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to prevent the escape of a suspect, or destruction of evidence.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Moving Party – The party to a legal action which has filed a motion with the court.
  • Pleading Paper – Paper used for documents submitted to the court, which contains line numbers down the left-hand side to make reading, and referring to various sections, easier.
  • Service of Process – Delivery of a writ, summons, or other legal papers to the person required to respond to them.