Jurisdiction is the authority granted by law to the courts to rule on legal matters and render judgments, according to the subject matter of the case, and the geographical region in which the issue took place. Areas of jurisdiction apply to local, state, and federal laws, which means that, for instance, a violation of federal law is tried in federal court. To explore this concept, consider the following jurisdiction definition.

Definition of Jurisdiction


  1. The power and authority to administer justice by hearing and deciding legal cases
  2. The territory over which such authority is exercised
  3. The geographical area of a court’s legal authority, or of a law enforcement agent’s authority


1250-1300       Middle English <Latin jūris dictiōn

What is Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction is the term that refers to the limits of a legal authority. It can refer to both political territories and geographic regions, as well as the types of legal matters over which a legal body has authority. A formally authorized legal body is a court, political or governmental office, and in many situations, law enforcement agency. When a legal body holds jurisdiction, it has the authority to administer justice within that jurisdiction.

In the court system, there are three primary types of jurisdiction: subject matter, territorial, and in personam jurisdiction. If a court without proper jurisdiction hears a case, it does not have the authority to render a judgment, to provide the plaintiff with a remedy to his legal issue, or to hand down sentencing. For this reason, it is important for all parties involved to be sure the case has been filed in a court of proper jurisdiction. This is one of the first things that should be determined by the judge as well, before allowing the case to proceed.

Typically, a court holds more than one jurisdiction type in any case. This might mean the court can hear cases that originate in its geographical jurisdiction, and it has subject matter jurisdiction as well. As an example of jurisdiction, a family law court has the authority to hear and decide matters related to divorce, child custody, child support, and other related issues, if the family lives in its geographical region. Family court does not, however, have jurisdiction to hear a criminal case, even if it somehow relates to a family issue.

For example:

Jack and Anna have separated and are going through the divorce process, including a child custody battle. Anna initially left Jack after he had beat her up badly, putting her in the hospital, and sending the children to stay with their grandparents. Jack was arrested that day, and charged with felony spousal assault.

The family court is handling the issues of divorce and child custody, which are greatly affected by the behavior of the father for the past several years. It does not, however, have authority to try Jack on his criminal charges. That authority rests solely with the criminal court.

Courts of General Jurisdiction

Courts of general jurisdiction have authority to hear any type of case within its geographical and governmental jurisdiction, except where prohibited by law. These courts are often called “district courts,” or “superior courts,” depending on the state. In the state of New York, the state court of general jurisdiction is called the “Supreme Court,” which can be confusing, as it is not actually the state’s supreme court.

This means, for instance, that a state trial court of general jurisdiction might have authority to hear cases regarding a variety of subjects, within its geographical and governmental jurisdiction. In most states, however, the superior or district courts are divided by subject matter, with a specified court assigned all cases dealing with that topic. For instance, separate courts, or judges, will hear family court matters, civil lawsuits, small claims lawsuits, traffic court, drug court, and criminal court. These are known as courts of “limited jurisdiction.”

Determining Whether a Court Has Jurisdiction

In order to determine which court has jurisdiction over a legal matter certain questions must be addressed. These are:

  1. Which court has jurisdiction in that geographical area (a civil lawsuit for an accident that occurred in Florida cannot generally be heard in California)
  2. Which court has jurisdiction over the defendant (or over the person being charged or sued)
  3. Which court has jurisdiction over the subject matter (is it family law, traffic violation, or civil lawsuit)

If the court in which any legal matter is filed lacks jurisdiction in even one of these areas, it does not have the authority to render judgment.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear cases involving a certain subject matter. A few examples of subject matter include bankruptcy, divorce, civil rights violations, and probate. The purpose of dividing a court system into such subject matter jurisdictions is to ensure that judges hearing certain types of cases are experienced in that area of law, as they work within it on a daily basis. It is just common sense that a judge specializing in bankruptcy cases not be allowed to hear a personal injury lawsuit.

Some types of jurisdiction, or lack thereof, can be waived by the parties, allowing the court to hear the case anyway. Subject matter jurisdiction, however, cannot be waived. If a court that does not have subject matter jurisdiction over a case makes a ruling on that case, the ruling can be invalidated.

For example:

As Alton was backing out of a parking space at the local mall, another car speeding down the aisle struck his car. While he had a stiff neck from the impact, Alton was more concerned about getting his car repairs taken care of, but the other driver’s insurance company is denying his claim.

A couple of weeks later, when Alton has to seek medical attention for the worsening pain in his neck and shoulder, he realizes he will have to file a civil lawsuit against the man who hit him, and against his insurance company. Alton knows where the courthouse is because he had hearings on his divorce there two years ago.

When Alton takes his civil lawsuit complaint to be filed with the court, he is told that the family law court cannot hear his personal injury lawsuit. Alton is redirected to the court that has subject matter jurisdiction over civil lawsuits and personal injury, to file his claim.

General Jurisdiction in State Courts vs. Federal Courts

While most states have courts of general jurisdiction, even if they have a system of courts with limited jurisdiction. On the other hand, the federal court system is limited by Article III of the U.S. Constitution as to subject matter. A primary issue in whether a federal court has jurisdiction over a civil case is whether the plaintiff has claimed a violation of the U.S. Constitution or federal law has occurred. This is referred as “federal-question jurisdiction.”

Criminal cases may be brought in either a state or federal court, depending on whose laws were violated. A defendant charged with violating a state theft law cannot be charged with that crime in a federal court. If he is accused of violating a federal law, such as trafficking in child pornography, he can be charged and tried in federal court. In some cases, a person may be charged and tried in both state and federal courts related to different elements of the same crime, and it has been ruled that this does not amount to double jeopardy.

Territorial Jurisdiction

Territorial Jurisdiction refers to the authority a court has over cases within its specific geographical territory. If the court lacks territorial jurisdiction, it does not have the authority to make a ruling, or to hand down a sentence. Unlike subject matter jurisdiction, the defendant may be allowed to waive territorial jurisdiction in certain cases.

Territorial jurisdiction also applies to the geographical territory of a law enforcement agency, and therefore the prosecutor for that region. For instance, if Bob commits a crime in Bakersfield, California, the Bakersfield police have the authority to investigate, and the District Attorney for Bakersfield has the authority to bring criminal charges and prosecute the case. The criminal case would then be heard in the state court in Bakersfield.

There are certain exceptions. If someone is accused of committing crimes in more than one county or city within a single state, the crimes could be prosecuted in any of those jurisdictions, or each may choose to prosecute separately for the crime committed within its boundaries. If that person committed crimes in more than one state, or crossed state lines while committing the crime, the federal court has territorial jurisdiction.

In Personam Jurisdiction

The Latin term in personam jurisdiction, refers to a court’s jurisdiction over the person, though it also applies to an entity. Legal actions must be filed in a court that has some connection to the event, or to the parties involved. This only comes into play in certain situations. For instance, Jack drives across the boarder from his construction business in California, to do some construction repairs on a home in Nevada, then returns home. Later, the homeowner complains that Jack’s work was terrible, and that he was bilked out of his hard-earned money.

The homeowner files a civil lawsuit in Nevada, but Jack complains to the court that, because the homeowner hired the services of his business, which is based in California, it has no jurisdiction. The lawsuit should be filed in California. Generally, the Nevada court has no jurisdiction over Jack or his construction company, as they are based in another state. That court can, however, assert in personam jurisdiction, or personal jurisdiction, over Jack and his company, and hear the case where the work was done.

Police jurisdiction

Like the courts, law enforcement agencies are subject to issues of jurisdiction. Police jurisdiction refers primarily to the agency’s assigned geographic region. Within a single state, there may be several law enforcement agencies, which work together in a sort of choreographed maneuver:

  • City police officers – have authority only within their city’s limits
  • County sheriff’s deputies – have authority within their county, not including activities within the city limits
  • State police or state troopers – have authority to act within their state, though they have authority only in limited circumstances within a county or city’s geographical regions

Each of these law enforcement agencies has their own territories, or police jurisdiction, but they work together to help ensure services are provided seamlessly between the regions. For instance, if city police chase a car across the city limits, they may be joined by county deputies to bring the chase to an end. State police often have broad authority, and are invited into the city or county jurisdictions to assist in certain cases.

Federal law enforcement officials have authority to arrest a person who has violated a federal law, regardless of which jurisdiction he is in. This is because they have authority to act when federal laws are violated, regardless of location within the U.S.

In general, a law enforcement officer does not have the authority to arrest someone outside his jurisdiction. Similarly, an off duty police officer, who is on vacation in another state, has no authority to detain or arrest someone in his official capacity as a police officer. This lack of police jurisdiction does not prevent the officer from making a citizen’s arrest while waiting for officers to arrive.

An Example of Jurisdiction

One of the first considerations for any court in the land is whether it has jurisdiction over any case brought before it. Laypeople bringing their own suit are often unaware of limitations to jurisdiction, which is understandable. This leaves the court responsible for making that determination before the case can move forward.

Foreign Company Sued over Faulty Part

In the 1980s, a young couple were riding a motorcycle which crashed because of a faulty valve that had been produced in Japan. The driver was seriously injured, and his wife, riding as passenger, was killed in the accident. The victim filed a civil lawsuit in the California court, where the victims lived, and the accident happened, against the Taiwanese distributor of the value, Cheng Shin Rubber Industrial Co. Cheng Shin Rubber had purchased the valves to use in their assembly of thousands of motorcycle wheels.

Cheng Shin filed a complaint with the court, asserting that the faulty valves had been manufactured by Asahi Metal Industry Co, in Japan, and that Cheng Shin had no knowledge that they were faulty. The complaint asked to be relieved of responsibility in the lawsuit, and that Asahi instead be held responsible. Asahi argued that the court in California had no jurisdiction over the company. The California court, however, ruled that it had personal jurisdiction based on the company’s awareness of the scope to which its products would be distributed internationally.

A series of appeals ensued, until the matter was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986. In Asahi Metal Indus. v. Superior Court the Court addressed the issue of whether the state court properly took personal jurisdiction over the Japanese company, simply by the fact that it should have known that its products, which were sold to a Taiwanese company, and shipped directly to that company, would make it into the California market.

The Court applied the following test to determine whether the state court could assert personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant:

  • What is the burden on the defendant to bring his case in a foreign land?
  • What are the interests of the state in which the lawsuit was filed in the litigation?
  • What is the interest of the plaintiff in litigating the matter in that state?
  • Does the allowance of personal jurisdiction serve interstate efficiency?
  • Does the allowance of personal jurisdiction serve interstate policy interests?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California could not claim personal jurisdiction over the Japanese company, which has no presence in the U.S., does no business in the country, and owns no property in the country. The Court held that, should the California court be allowed to exercise jurisdiction over Asahi, the act would be “unreasonable and unfair.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Judgment – A formal decision made by a court in a lawsuit.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.

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