In a nation of laws, there must be courts to adjudicate upon those laws. Yet the courts themselves are governed by laws.

Subject matter jurisdiction

The state courts are courts of general jurisdiction, and may hear cases about any subject matter.

The federal district courts are Constitutionally prohibited (by the Tenth Amendment in conjunction with Article III) from hearing any case that does not fall into one of two categories. First, the district courts have diversity jurisdiction over a case in which no plaintiff resides in the same state as any defendant, and in which it is claimed (at least somewhat reasonably) that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. The amount-in-controversy requirement is statutory, not Constitutional. Second, the district courts have federal-question jurisdiction over any case arising out of the Constitution or federal law. (The Supreme Court has also held that the district courts may maintain jurisdiction over state claims that share a common nucleus of operative fact with the federal claims conferring jurisdiction. This is called supplemental jurisdiction.)

Personal jurisdiction

Under the Due Process Clauses of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has held that a defendant must have minimum contacts with a state before he can be forced to appear before a court there. This is true for both federal and state courts. If the defendant (allegedly) commits his crime or tort in the state, that's good enough. If defendant is a corporation that sells tons of projects to the state, one of which injures plaintiff, that's good enough. There is considerable case law about this difficult minimum contacts issue.

A defendant may agree to personal jurisdiction even if he or she does not have minimum contacts with the state. On the other hand, all court actions in a case in which the court does not have subject matter jurisdiction are void. One more note. In this article I have discussed many Constitutional jurisdictional boundaries. However, Congress is Constitutionally responsible for delineating the boundaries, within the Constitution, of federal court jurisdiction. With few exceptions, Congress has given the federal courts jurisdiction to the fullest extent Constitutionally permissible.

Ju`ris*dic"tion (?), n. [L. jurisdictio; jus, juris, right, law + dictio a saying, speaking: cf. OF. jurisdiction, F. juridiction. See Just, a., and Diction.]

1. Law

The legal power, right, or authority of a particular court to hear and determine causes, to try criminals, or to execute justice; judicial authority over a cause or class of causes; as, certain suits or actions, or the cognizance of certain crimes, are within the jurisdiction of a particular court, that is, within the limits of its authority or commission.


The authority of a sovereign power to govern or legislate; the right of making or enforcing laws; the power or right of exercising authority.

To live exempt From Heaven's high jurisdiction. Milton.

You wrought to be a legate; by which power You maim'd the jurisdiction of all bishops. Shak.


Sphere of authority; the limits within which any particular power may be exercised, or within which a government or a court has authority.

Jurisdiction, in its most general sense, is the power to make, declare, or apply the law. When confined to the judiciary department, it is what we denominate the judicial power, the right of administering justice through the laws, by the means which the laws have provided for that purpose. Jurisdiction is limited to place or territory, to persons, or to particular subjects.



© Webster 1913.

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