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Jurisdiction can be defined as:

  1. Power of a court to adjudicate cases and issue orders; or
  2. Territory within which a court or government agency may properly exercise its power. See, e.g. Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co. et al., 526 U.S. 574 (1999).

Jurisdiction: An Overview

One of the most fundamental questions of law is whether a given court has jurisdiction to preside over a given case. A jurisdictional question may be broken down into three components:

  • Whether there is personal jurisdiction [aka whether the court may even hear the case involving the particular defendant(s)]. This is further broken down into 3 categories (See Pennoyer v. Neff for additional information): 
    • in personam jurisdiction
    • in rem jurisdiction
    • quasi in rem jurisdiction
  • Whether there is jurisdiction over the subject matter 
  • Whether there is jurisdiction to render the particular judgment sought

The term jurisdiction can be best understood by being compared to "power." Any court possesses jurisdiction over matters only to the extent granted to it by the Constitution, and/or legislation of sovereignty on behalf of which it functions (ex: a state court in Mississippi may need statutory permission by the Mississippi legislature to hear certain types of cases). The question of whether a given court has the power to determine a jurisdictional question is itself a jurisdictional question. Such a legal question is referred to as "jurisdiction to determine jurisdiction."

Subject matter jurisdiction is the court's authority to decide the issue in controversy such as a contracts issue, or a civil rights issue. State courts have general jurisdiction, meaning that they can hear any controversy except those prohibited by state law (some states, for example, deny subject matter jurisdiction for a case that does not involve state citizens and did not take place in the state) and those allocated to federal courts of exclusive jurisdiction such as admiralty or bankruptcy issues (see 28 U.S.C. § 1333, 1334). Federal courts have limited jurisdiction in that they can only hear cases that fall both within the scope defined by the Constitution in Article III Section 2 and Congressional statutes (See 28 U.S.C. §1251, §1253, §1331, §1332).

Territorial jurisdiction is the court's power to bind the parties to the action. This law determines the scope of federal and state court power. State court territorial jurisdiction is determined by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment and the federal court territorial jurisdiction is determined by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment. (For more, see World-Wide Volkswagen v. Woodson; see also International Shoe v. Washington).

Other forms of jurisdiction include appellate jurisdiction (the power of one court to correct the errors of another, lower court), concurrent jurisdiction (the notion that two courts might share the power to hear cases of the same type, arising in the same place), and diversity jurisdiction (the power of Federal courts to hear cases in which the parties are from different states). An example showing the interplay of diversity jurisdiction with subject-matter jurisdiction is Grupo Dataflux v. Atlas Global Group, L. P. (02-1689), 541 U.S. 567 (2004)

Parties will often sue a defendant who is a resident of a different state. For a state court to hear this case, that court will need to satisfy the constitutional due process requirement for territorial jurisdiction (see above) as well as the state statutory requirement, which is typically known as a state's long-arm statute.

See also: general jurisdiction and specific jurisdiction

Federal Material

U.S. Constitution
Federal Statutes

[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]