General Jurisdiction

General Jurisdiction refers to a court that holds the authority to hear all types of cases except those prohibited by the laws in that state. Case types include civil, criminal, family, probate, and others. While each state has a system that establishes trial courts of general jurisdiction, federal courts do not have general jurisdiction, as they are limited to hearing cases that fall within the scope defined in Article III of the U.S. Constitutional, and Congressional statues. To explore this concept, consider the following general jurisdiction definition.

Definition of General Jurisdiction


  1. A court’s authority to hear all types of cases except those that are prohibited by state laws.


Jurisdiction is another word for “authority” and all courts have power over matters extended to them by the Constitution. Three primary questions must be answered in determining whether a court has the authority to hear and make a decision in any case is a matter of jurisdictional questioning:

  1. Whether the court has jurisdiction over the defendant
  2. Whether the court has jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case
  3. Whether the court has jurisdiction to hand down the judgment sought

State Court Jurisdiction

State courts have jurisdiction to hear a broad variety of cases. This ensures they take care of most cases involving the people inside their geographical boundaries, such as traffic violations, family disputes, contract disputes, and most criminal matters. The only matters state courts cannot hear include lawsuits filed against the federal government, and those involving certain federal laws, including antitrust violations, bankruptcy, copyright and patent infringement, and some maritime cases.

Types of Jurisdiction

The issue of geographical or “territorial” jurisdiction is generally the first to be decided, after which other types of jurisdiction need to be ascertained. Courts that have authority over all or multiple types of jurisdiction are said to be courts of “general jurisdiction.”

Territorial Jurisdiction

Territorial jurisdiction refers to a court’s authority over people and events within the bounds of its geographical territory. The term also refers to the territory over which a government, law enforcement agency, or other entity has jurisdiction.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction relates to a court’s authority to decide the actual issue of the case. Subject matter refers to the type of case, such as criminal, contracts, family law, or civil rights issues. For example, a family law court has the authority to hear divorce issues and determine child custody, but does not have the authority to make a determination in a contract dispute.

Personal Jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to enforce its decision on the parties to the case. The court must have some type of connection to the parties involved or the event itself. Court actions in the United States are generally initiated in the territorial jurisdiction where the event happened, where the parties reside, or where the defendant can be legally served. For example, a court in California does not have jurisdiction to hear a case involving a car accident in Ohio, involving residents of Ohio.

Appellate Jurisdiction

Appellate jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear cases, and to correct errors made, by a lower court. Appellate jurisdictions are created by legislation, rather than strictly by region.

Diversity Jurisdiction

Diversity jurisdiction refers to the power of federal courts to hear cases that involve parties from different states. Because courts only have jurisdiction over cases that involve parties over whom they have established a relationship, overseeing cases with residents of various states can be complicated. Federal courts do not have relationships with residents of specific states, this can solve the problems that may arise with personal jurisdiction issues.

In Rem Jurisdiction

In rem jurisdiction is the court’s power to make orders that apply to an item or property, such as land or a vehicle. A court claiming in rem jurisdiction may determine the status, ownership, and disposition of the property.

Dismissal of a Case Based on Jurisdiction

When a case is filed in a court that does not have jurisdiction over the parties or subject matter, the judge must dismiss the case, as it would have no authority to make or enforce any decision made. For example, if a probate judge sentenced Bob to jail during a case that involved Bob’s theft in a family estate, Bob could appeal the matter, and possibly sue the judge, as the probate court does not have jurisdiction to hand out criminal sentences. A court of general jurisdiction however, could legally sentence Bob to jail since the judge has complete authority to make decisions in criminal matters, and set punishment.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appeal – a legal procedure by which a court decision or trial verdict is reviewed by a higher court.
  • Defendant – a person facing criminal or civil proceedings in a court of law.
  • Dismissal – the termination of a legal proceeding by the judge, before a trial or hearing, typically on the grant of a motion to dismiss.
  • Probate – the legal process administering the estate of a person who has died; the court process of determining whether a Will is valid.
  • Probate Court – a court having subject matter jurisdiction to decide matters of probate.