Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The term “subject matter jurisdiction” refers to the fact that specific courts are established to handle cases pertaining to a particular type of claim. For example, subject matter jurisdiction in the U.S. means that courts are divided up into sections, such as civil law, family law, and criminal law. A court in one of these divisions is said to have subject matter jurisdiction over cases that are relevant to its nature. However, every state has a superior court that has “general jurisdiction,” which is the ability to hear any case, regardless of its subject matter. To explore this concept, consider the following subject matter jurisdiction definition.

Definition of Subject Matter Jurisdiction


  1. The system by which a court specializes in hearing cases related to a particular issue, or subject matter, such as family or criminal cases.


1250-1300       Middle English

Types of Court Jurisdiction

In both federal and state court systems, there are two types of court jurisdiction: personal jurisdiction, and subject matter jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction refers to actions in which the parties live, or business operates, within the geographical jurisdiction of the court. If the people involved in the lawsuit are present in the state, or if they are legal residents of the state wherein the lawsuit has been filed, then personal jurisdiction applies.

Personal jurisdiction also exists when the transaction at the heart of a lawsuit has a significant connection to the state, even if it did not occur within that state. For example, should two residents of Florida purchase faulty products – at their local store – from a company whose corporate office is in New York, Florida’s courts would have personal jurisdiction over the matter.

Subject matter jurisdiction, the second of the types of court jurisdiction, refers to the specific area of law that a court is authorized to preside over. For example, subject matter jurisdiction means that family matters, such as divorce and child custody, can only be heard by a court specializing in family law. Similarly, criminal cases would not be heard by a family court, but by a court specializing in criminal law.

Federal Court Jurisdictions

When a non-criminal case is raised in federal court, it can fall into two additional types of court jurisdiction that are specific to federal court: federal question jurisdiction, and diversity jurisdiction. Federal question jurisdiction allows federal district courts to hear cases that pertain to rights under the Constitution, or other federal law. Diversity jurisdiction gives the courts the authority to hear cases that pertain to disputes involving parties who live in different states.

However, both of these jurisdictions are limited, in that cases wherein an amount of less than $10,000 is in controversy, neither jurisdiction will apply, and the matter should instead be brought before a state court. Federal courts are also entitled to “removal jurisdiction.” Removal jurisdiction gives the federal courts the right to try cases that were removed by the defendant(s) from state court. The inner workings of removal jurisdiction are identical to those of original jurisdiction.

Cases pertaining to ambassadors, consuls, and public ministers, as well as maritime cases, and cases wherein the U.S. is a party, can only be heard by federal courts. Federal subject matter jurisdiction may also exist per the statutes that govern cases involving securities, bankruptcies, patents, and copyrights. Such statutes may require that matters that fall into any of these categories be heard by a federal court.

What is Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the fact that certain courts have the authority to hear certain matters. For instance, a criminal court would not preside over a divorce case. The divorce case would instead be heard by the family law court, as these are the only courts with the authority to grant a divorce, and rule on child custody. Similarly, a family law court would not be able to sentence a defendant in a criminal matter.

Subject matter jurisdiction may also depend on the amount of money that is being disputed in the case. For instance, small claims courts are limited by their states’ statutes insofar as the amounts of money in controversy that they are able to decide. Depending on the state, small claims courts will only hear cases wherein an amount between $1,000 and $5,000 is in dispute. Amounts higher than $5,000 would be out of the small claims court’s subject matter jurisdiction, and would instead be referred to a higher civil court.

Every state has a superior court that has the jurisdiction to hear any case, regardless of the field of law that particular case would fall into. A defendant who believes that the court hearing his case lacks subject matter jurisdiction, he can appeal that court’s decision, asking for a new trial. If, in fact, an error in the subject matter jurisdiction is discovered, the judgment will typically be considered void, and it will have no legal power nor binding effect on the parties to the litigation.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction in Federal vs. State Courts

In the United States, state courts are divided into specialties like criminal, family, civil, and probate. A court that falls into one of these divisions would lack the subject matter jurisdiction to hear a matter that would be better assigned to one of the other divisions. Federal courts are limited insofar as the matters they can preside over and, as a result, can only hear a very small fraction of their respective states’ caseload. As a result, state courts are authorized to hear the majority of the cases that are brought before them, even those pertaining to federal law.

Federal district courts in particular have jurisdiction over actions that meet two basic requirements:

  • Complete diversity requirement: The defendant(s) in a case cannot be a citizen(s) of the same state as any of the plaintiffs in the case.
  • Amount in controversy requirement: The matter being disputed concerns an amount that exceeds $75,000.

Federal courts are also granted removal jurisdiction, which allows them to try cases that have been removed by their defendants from the state courts. The removal jurisdiction process is identical to that which concerns original jurisdiction.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction Example Involving a Post Office Employee

An example of subject matter jurisdiction involved a postal service worker who was injured while walking to work. In August of 1968, John J. Joyce worked for the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania post office. While he was making his way to work down the sidewalk that was located adjacent to the Post Office and Courthouse Building, he was hit in the head with a bar of soap that had been either dropped from, or thrown out of, a window of the building’s third floor restroom. As a result, Mr. Joyce developed a lump on his head, and experienced continued headaches, dizziness, and pain.

Joyce had contacted the Bureau of Employees’ Compensation (BEC) within two days of the incident. In the Notice of Injury that Joyce filed, he indicated that he had suffered the injury while performing his duties as an employee of the U.S. Government. The BEC thereafter approved the payment of two of Joyce’s medical bills, however they requested more information from Mr. Joyce nine months after he had initially filed his claim. They ultimately authorized him to seek further medical evaluations in order to determine the full extent of the treatment he would need.

The BEC tried to reach out to Mr. Joyce on several occasions with no success. Their first attempt was to advise him to make an appointment with the U.S. Public Health Service in Pittsburgh for examination and treatment, if necessary. They sent a similar letter to the U.S. Public Health Service authorizing these procedures. After Mr. Joyce did not respond to that letter, the BEC wrote him again in February of 1971 asking for an explanation as to why they did not receive any medical reports from him. Again, their request went unanswered.

Mr. Joyce resurfaced in late February with a lawsuit against the United States wherein he sought damages in an amount in excess of $10,000. A bench trial commenced in the federal district court in May, 1971. During the trial, the Government filed a motion asserting that the district court lacked the jurisdiction to decide the case until the Secretary of Labor, through the BEC, determined whether Joyce’s injuries were covered by the Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA).

The court denied the motion and ruled in Joyce’s favor, awarding him approximately $35,000. The court’s reasoning was that a district court must only defer to the BEC when the facts of the case raise a question as to whether FECA would cover an injured party’s injuries. Since no such question was presented here, and because the issue was raised so late in the proceedings, the court ruled that it did indeed have discretion insofar as deciding the Government’s motion. However, on appeal, the district court’s judgment was vacated, and the matter remanded with instructions to stay the proceeding pending the outcome of the proceedings under the FECA.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bench Trial – A trial by a judge, without a jury.
  • Federal Employees Compensation Act (FECA) – A federal law established to compensate federal civil service employees for wages lost due to injuries sustained while on the job.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Original Jurisdiction – The power to hear a case for the first time, rather than on appeal.
  • Probate – The court process by which a Will is proved valid or invalid.
  • Small Claims Court – A court that specializes in resolving minor issues quickly and inexpensively.