A court must have jurisdiction to enter a valid, enforceable judgment on a claim. Where jurisdiction is lacking, litigants, through various procedural mechanisms, may retroactively challenge the validity of a judgment.
Jurisdiction may be broken down into two categories: personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction is the requirement that a given court have power over the defendant, based on minimum contacts with the forum. Subject-matter jurisdiction is the requirement that a given court have power to hear the specific kind of claim that is brought to that court. While litigating parties may waive personal jurisdiction, they cannot waive subject-matter jurisdiction. In federal court, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction is considered a favored defense and may be raised at any point in the litigation process, even if the parties had previously argued that subject-matter jurisdiction existed. In fact, the court may dismiss a case sua sponte (on its own) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. See, e.g., Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(1).
General and Limited Jurisdiction
The requirement that a court have subject-matter jurisdiction means that the court can only assume power over a claim which it is authorized to hear under the laws of the jurisdiction. For example, Congress limited the subject-matter jurisdiction of the United States Tax Court to cases related to taxation; thus, that court does not have subject-matter jurisdiction over any other matter. Most state courts are courts of general jurisdiction, whereas federal courts have limited jurisdiction. That is, state courts are presumed to have power to hear virtually any claim arising under federal or state law, except those falling under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal courts. However, for pragmatic reasons some states deny subject-matter jurisdiction to specific claims, such as those arising in other states. Most states also maintain specialized courts of limited subject-matter jurisdiction. Examples of these types of courts include probate courts, traffic courts, juvenile courts, and small claims courts. As for federal courts, with few exceptions found in the Constitution itself, Congress defines their limited subject-matter jurisdiction. In order to bring an action in federal court, the plaintiff must find a constitutional or congressional grant of subject-matter jurisdiction to allow the federal court to hear the claim. See U.S. Const. Art. III, Sec. 2. As a general rule, courts read congressional grants of subject-matter jurisdiction narrowly, resolving any ambiguities in favor of denying jurisdiction.
A threshold concern for all federal courts is the presence, or absence, of constitutional standing. The standing requirement, as governed by Article III of the Constitution, permits federal courts to adjudicate only cases or controversies. A case or controversy must comprise an actual injury that can be redressed. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife at p559. Subject-matter jurisdiction does not exist in the absence of constitutional standing. This restriction prevents courts—whose members are not elected and are therefore not politically accountable—from influencing the law in a legislative capacity. In this sense, the standing doctrine and subject-matter jurisdiction facilitate the separation of powers.
Federal Subject-Matter Jurisdiction Sources
The two primary sources of the subject-matter jurisdiction of the federal courts are diversity jurisdiction and federal question jurisdiction. Diversity jurisdiction generally permits individuals to bring claims in federal court where the claim exceeds $75,000 and the parties are citizens of different states. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332. So, if a citizen of New York sues a citizen of California for more than $75,000, a federal court would have subject-matter jurisdiction to hear that claim. Under federal question jurisdiction, a litigant—regardless of the value of the claim—may bring a claim in federal court if it arises under federal law, including the U.S. Constitution. See 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Federal question jurisdiction requires that the federal element appears on the face of a well-plead complaint, is a substantial component of the complainant's claim, and is of significant federal interest. Federal question subject-matter jurisdiction is frequently derived from federal statutes granting a cause of action to parties who have suffered a particular injury. Furthermore, it is important to note that 28 U.S.C. § 1367 provides for supplemental jurisdiction in federal courts. Supplemental jurisdiction allows a federal court to adjudicate a claim over which it does not have independent subject-matter jurisdiction, on the basis that the claim is related to a claim over which the federal court does have independent jurisdiction.
The jurisdictional division between state and federal tribunals is an essential component of American federalism. Federal courts possess exclusive jurisdiction over certain subject matter, notably issues like patent and admiralty law, which have national significance. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1333, 1338. Exclusive jurisdiction over such issues indicates a significant federal interest in the subject matter and allows for the development of a uniform body of federal law governing complex issues that have interstate implications. Further, the limited jurisdiction of federal courts encourages parties to resort to local tribunals when adjudicating issues relevant to those courts. This inhibits excessive federal judicial intervention and funnels claims into courts that are most knowledgeable about the applicable law. Federal and state courts also have concurrent subject-matter jurisdiction over many issues, allowing parties to chose whether to litigate in a federal or state tribunal.
Finally, it is important to recognize the far-reaching impact of the concept of subject-matter jurisdiction. While discourse on subject-matter jurisdiction is often related to the relationship between domestic courts, subject-matter jurisdiction plays a role in international law as well. For example, issues frequently arise involving the jurisdiction of international criminal tribunals, like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Here, subject-matter jurisdiction has international political significance because parties must decide the degree to which a supranational tribunal can affect persons traditionally subject to domestic law.
Last updated in June of 2017 by Stephanie Jurkowski.