Learn How Jurisdiction Is Determined in Lawsuits

Jurisdiction in Lawsuits
••• What is Jurisdiction? How is it Decided?. Phil Roeder/Getty Images

Jurisdiction, in general, is the power to exercise authority over persons and things within a territory. In its legal use, jurisdiction means the power of a court to hear and decide a case or issue a decree. Jurisdiction can also relate to a geographical area in which a political authority is recognized.

The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University breaks jurisdiction down into three components: whether there is jurisdiction over the person, whether there is jurisdiction over the subject matter, and whether there is jurisdiction to render the particular judgment sought.

Jurisdiction Over Subject Matter and Person 

When a legal case is being considered, one of the first questions involves where that case will be heard; that is, the question of jurisdiction must be decided. The jurisdiction of a legal case depends on both personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter comes first.

To have the power to hear a case, a court must have both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over the matter. For example, a business bankruptcy case can only be heard in a bankruptcy court, but the location of the persons involved determines the specific bankruptcy court hearing the case. Other cases in which subject matter is important are immigration cases and patent disputes; both must be heard in federal courts.

Examples of Jurisdiction 

Personal jurisdiction is based on where the parties (usually the defendant) lives or has property or does business; these are usually state court issues.

Most states recognize residence and business location for personal jurisdiction.

For cases involving online vendors, the concept of "minimal contacts" can be used. In these cases, if a person or business has "minimal contact" within the state, the state can have jurisdiction. So, if an online vendor is a citizen of, say, Ohio, but the business takes orders from someone in Indiana, the vendor could be said to have "minimal contact" in Indiana, and Indiana could have jurisdiction, particularly if the customer was in Indiana.

In custody disputes in divorce cases, including grandparent visitation, the lawsuit will be filed in the state where the original divorce has been filed; the child's "home state." 

In divorce cases involving military personnel, there can be up to three jurisdictions: the legal residence of the military member; the legal residence of the spouse; and the state that the service member is stationed in.

Jurisdiction Over Money Claims

Jurisdiction also relates to the amount of money at issue. For example, small claims courts are limited to hearing cases involving only a small amount of money; each state determines the monetary limit on small claims cases.

If a case is brought to a court which doesn't have both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction to hear the case, it is said that the court "lacks jurisdiction." The case will need to be heard in a different court, one which has jurisdiction over the matter.

Personal jurisdiction can also be used in cases of property ownership, even if the person or business involved is located in another state. In these cases, the claim should relate to the property at issue. If the lawsuit has nothing to do with the property, the property can't be used to establish jurisdiction.

The Difference Between Federal and State Jurisdiction

Most cases are heard in state courts, but federal courts have jurisdiction in 9 different types of cases:

  • Cases arising under the US Constitution; that is, cases which have a Constitutional issue at their base
  • Cases arising under federal laws and treaties made by the United States
  • Ambassadors and public ministers
  • Disputes between two or more states
  • Admiralty law, and
  • Bankruptcy cases.

Cases involving the IRS and federal taxes are also heard by the U.S. Tax Court, while cases involving state taxes are heard by state tax courts.

The Supreme Court's Jurisdiction 

People often say, "I'm taking that all the way to the Supreme Court," but what does that really mean? The Supreme Court's jurisdiction is more limited than you might think. It is charged by the U.S. constitution with judicial review for specific cases.

Read more about the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. 

Other Types of Jurisdiction

Some types of jurisdiction:

  • Appellate jurisdiction: the power of a court to hear an appeal and to revise or overturn a previous court's decision. For example, the Supreme Court is the final appellant court in the appeals process.
  • Concurrent jurisdiction: Jurisdiction exercised simultaneously by more than one court over the same subject matter and within the same territory. A litigant can choose in which jurisdiction the case is filed.
  • Federal jurisdiction: The authority of a federal court to hear a case.