In its opposition to the government's motion for a protective order in United States of America v. Donald J. Trump, Waltine Nauta, and Carlos De Oliveira, Waltine Nauta's defense refers to Donald Trump as the "lead defendant". I'm wondering whether this is a precisely defined legal term. The term is apparently in common use, including in official government communication (e.g. here, here, here), but I can't find a definition for it anywhere.

The term seems to appear neither in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

The Wikipedia article on Obergefell v. Hodges says "Wymyslo was substituted as the lead defendant, and the case was restyled Obergefell v. Wymyslo", but none of the documents in the references for that statement contain the term "lead defendant". The statement seems to indicate that the lead defendant is the first one in the list of defendants, whose name is used for the case style. If so, does this have any legal relevance beyond the style?

In the original indictment and the superseding indictment, Walt Nauta and Carlos De Oliveira are referred to as "Trump's co-conspirators", whereas Trump himself is never referred to as a "co-conspirator". That might suggest that Trump is alleged to be something like the "lead conspirator", but the conspiracy statute makes no distinctions among the conspirators.

So my impression is that "lead defendant" is just an informal term for the defendant whose name appears first in the list of defendants, and that this carries no legal implications. Is that correct?

  • Incidentally, a similar term "lead attorney" for a party, is one that has substantive meaning and is often used in local rules with parties required to designate a lead attorney and to have that person participate in certain hearings and mediation sessions.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 23:01

2 Answers 2


"Lead defendant" is not used, unless colloquially by some, but a comparable term would be "principal defendant" which is more than mere style as it becomes important when establishing the hierarchy of defendants for, say, culpability and at sentencing (i.e. it has some legal implications).

It could also relate to the first-named on the indictment (see rule 3.32(1)(b)(ii) Criminal Procedure Rules 2020) and often this is the principal, but the prosecutor has discretion on the order of names on the indictment, because:

It is important to bear in mind that defendants are called to give evidence in the order in which their names appear on the indictment. This means that a tactical decision may need to be made as to the order of defendants on the indictment, bearing in mind the evidence and the nature of the case.


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It’s just English

That is “lead defendant” is not a legal phrase, it’s just two English words - lead meaning first and defendant means, well, defendant. You also have lead plaintiffs.

Modern usage tends to use first over lead when but we still talk of say, the lead trombonist in an orchestra.

Much as it pains them, lawyers and courts don’t always use jargon, sometimes they just use English like the rest of us.

  • 1
    It appears to be a term that is being used in this context to denote more than just the defendant whose name appears first in the caption, based upon the information in the question.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 23:00

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