How Jurisdiction Is Determined in Lawsuits

Jurisdiction gives a court the power to decide a legal matter

Exterior view of the Supreme Court.

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Jurisdiction is the power to exercise authority over persons and things within a territory. In a legal sense, it gives a court the power to hear and decide a case or lawsuit. Jurisdiction can also relate to a geographical area in which political authority is recognized.

The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University breaks jurisdiction down into three components:

  • Jurisdiction over a person
  • Jurisdiction over the subject matter
  • Jurisdiction to render the particular judgment sought

Jurisdiction Over Subject Matter and Person 

One of the first questions involved in any lawsuit is where that case will be heard. The jurisdiction of a legal case depends on both personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. A court must have both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over the matter to hear a case.

Subject matter comes first. For example, a business bankruptcy case can only be heard in a federal bankruptcy court. However, the location of the person involved in the bankruptcy determines which federal bankruptcy court hears the case. Other cases in which subject matter is important are immigration cases and patent disputes. Both are required to be heard in federal court.

Personal jurisdiction is based on where one—or both—of the involved parties live, own property, or conduct business. These are usually state court issues. Most states recognize residence and business location for personal jurisdiction.

Online and Child Custody Disputes

The concept of "minimal contacts" can also be used in cases involving online vendors. A certain state can have jurisdiction if a party or business to the suit has minimal contact with the state. A vendor could be said to have minimal contact in Indiana if he is a citizen of Ohio but his business takes orders from someone in Indiana. The state of Indiana might, therefore, have jurisdiction.

Lawsuits involving child custody disputes are typically heard in the child's home state, but there can be up to three jurisdictions in divorce cases involving military personnel: the legal residence of the service member, the legal residence of the spouse, and the state where the service member is stationed.​

Money Claims

Jurisdiction also relates to the amount of money at issue. For example, small claims courts are limited to hearing cases involving only limited amounts of money. Each state determines the monetary cap on small claims cases.

A court is said to lack jurisdiction when a case is brought before it that doesn't have both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. The case must be heard in a different court when this occurs, one that does have 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. A claim should relate to the property at issue. A property cannot be used to establish jurisdiction if the lawsuit has nothing to do with the property.

Federal vs. State Jurisdiction

Most cases are heard in state courts but federal courts have jurisdiction in nine types of cases, including those that arise under the terms of the U.S. Constitution. They have a constitutional issue at their base.

Federal courts also hear cases involving other federal laws and treaties made by the United States. They hear cases involving ambassadors and public ministers, disputes between two or more states, admiralty law, and bankruptcies.

Cases involving the Internal Revenue Service and federal tax issues are 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 this all the way to the Supreme Court," but that's not technically possible, as the Supreme Court's jurisdiction is more limited than you might think. It's charged by the U.S. Constitution with performing judicial reviews of specific cases that have already been decided in other courts. 

Appellate and Concurrent Powers

Some other types of jurisdiction include appellate jurisdiction and concurrent jurisdiction. Appellate jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear an appeal and to revise, overturn, or uphold a previous court's decision. The Supreme Court is the final appellant court in the appeals process.

Concurrent jurisdiction is 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.