views updated May 23 2018


A written application from a person or persons to some governing body or public official asking that some authority be exercised to grant relief, favors, or privileges.

A formal application made to a court in writing that requests action on a certain matter.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees to the people the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. Petitions are also used to collect signatures to enable a candidate to get on a ballot or put an issue before the electorate. Petitions can serve as a way of pressuring elected officials to adhere to the position expressed by the petitioners.

The right to petition the government for correction of public grievances derives from the English magna charta of 1215 and the English bill of rights of 1689. One of the colonists' objections to British rule before the American Revolution was the king's refusal to act on their petitions of redress. The Founders attempted to address this concern with the First Amendment, which affirms the right of the people to petition their government. Almost all states adopted similar guarantees of petition in their own constitutions.

Between 1836 and 1840, abolitionists collected the signatures of two million people on petitions against slavery and sent them to the U.S. House of Representatives. In the early twentieth century, states passed laws allowing initiative (the proposing of legislation by the people) and recall (an election to decide whether an elected official should be removed from office). Both processes start with the collection of a minimum number of signatures on a petition. Small political parties often use petitions to collect signatures to enable their candidates to be placed on the election ballot.

Petitions are also directed to courts of law and administrative agencies and boards. A petition may be made ex parte (without the presence of the opposing party) where there are no parties in opposition. For example, the executor of an estate may file a petition with the probate court requesting approval to sell property that belongs to the estate or trust.

In contested matters, however, the opposing party must be served with the petition and be given the opportunity to appear in court to argue the merits of the issues it contains. A prisoner may file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, in which the prisoner requests a hearing to determine whether he or she is entitled to be released from custody because of unconstitutional or illegal actions by the government. The prisoner must serve the government office that prosecuted him or her with a copy of the petition. The writ of habeas corpus, like many other types of writs, is discretionary; the court is free to deny the petition.


views updated May 23 2018

pe·ti·tion / pəˈtishən/ • n. a formal written request, typically one signed by many people, appealing to authority with respect to a particular cause: she was asked to sign a petition against plans to build on the local playing fields. ∎  an appeal or request, esp. a solemn or humble one to a deity or a superior. ∎  Law an application to a court for a writ, judicial action in a suit, etc.: a divorce petition.• v. [tr.] make or present a formal request to (an authority) with respect to a particular cause: Americans who moved west petitioned Congress for admission to the Union as states | [tr.] leaders petitioned the government to hold free elections soon. ∎  make a solemn or humble appeal to (a figure of authority): Russell petitioned her father for her hand in marriage. ∎  Law make a formal application to (a court) for a writ, judicial action in a suit, etc.: the custodial parent petitioned the court for payment of the arrears | [intr.] the process allows both spouses to jointly petition for divorce. DERIVATIVES: pe·ti·tion·ar·y / -ˌnerē/·ti·tion·er n.


views updated May 14 2018

petition action of begging or supplicating, orig. in prayer XIV; formally drawn-up request from an inferior to a superior or body in authority XV. — (O)F. pétition — L. petītiō, -ōn-, f. pp. stem of petere aim at, ask, seek; see -TION.
Hence vb. XVII.