Court Jurisdiction

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

In the context of courts, jurisdiction is a legal term that refers to the authority granted to a court to hear and decide cases. This power is bestowed upon the court by the Constitution or legislation, and it outlines the types of cases a court can rule on.

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Types of Jurisdiction

There are several types of court jurisdictions in the U.S., which we will discuss next.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the court’s authority to hear a specific type of case. For example, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases, meaning only they can hear these cases.

Personal Jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction, on the other hand, is the court’s power to make decisions that bind the parties involved in a lawsuit. For a court to exercise personal jurisdiction, the party must have a significant connection with the place where the court is located.

Geographic Jurisdiction

Geographic jurisdiction relates to the physical area within which a court has authority. This could be a city, a state, or a federal district.

Federal vs. State Jurisdiction

In the U.S., both federal and state courts have jurisdiction, but the types of cases they can hear differ. Federal courts generally have jurisdiction over cases involving federal laws, disputes between states, and cases involving foreign governments. State courts, in contrast, have broad jurisdiction, so the cases individuals are most likely to be involved in – such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes – are usually tried in state courts.

However, some cases can be heard in both federal and state courts. This is known as concurrent jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction vs. Venue: A Comparison

While “jurisdiction” and “venue” are both legal concepts relating to where a case can be heard, they serve different functions in the legal system.

Jurisdiction, as we discussed earlier, refers to a court’s legal authority to hear a case based on the case’s type and the parties involved. If a court lacks jurisdiction, it simply cannot hear the case—its judgment would be invalid. Therefore, jurisdiction is a matter of law, meaning it is rooted in constitutions, statutes, and rules.

Venue, on the other hand, concerns the most appropriate location for a case to be heard. This determination often takes into account the convenience of the parties and the location of events leading to the lawsuit. Unlike jurisdiction, venue doesn’t concern a court’s power to hear a case. Instead, it is a matter of procedure. Even if a court is an improper venue, it can still make legally valid decisions.

Here is an example to illustrate the difference: If a car accident happens in California, a court in Florida would lack personal jurisdiction over the defendant unless specific connections with Florida could be established. Similarly, a bankruptcy court would lack subject matter jurisdiction over the case because it’s not a bankruptcy matter. Meanwhile, a court in Northern California might be a proper venue if that’s where the accident occurred, even if another court in Southern California also had jurisdiction.

In sum, jurisdiction is about the power to decide a case, whereas venue is about the most suitable location for a case to be heard. Understanding both concepts is crucial for a functional grasp of the U.S. legal system.

Jurisdiction in Court vs. Law Enforcement

Just as courts have jurisdiction, law enforcement agencies do too. But how does it differ?

Court Jurisdiction refers to the legal authority for a court to hear and decide a specific type of case, as we have previously discussed. Laws and constitutions define this authority and are typically based on the type of case and the parties involved.

Law Enforcement Jurisdiction, on the other hand, refers to the geographic area and legal boundaries within which a law enforcement agency, such as a police department or the FBI, has the authority to enforce the law. For example, a city police officer cannot issue traffic tickets in a neighboring city or state where their department doesn’t have authority.

In other words, while court jurisdiction defines where a case may be heard and decided, law enforcement jurisdiction defines where law enforcement officers can act to enforce the law.

While these two concepts are distinct, they can intersect. For instance, the jurisdiction of a local police department may influence where a case is heard because state courts typically have jurisdiction over crimes committed within their state’s borders.

Understanding these different uses of “jurisdiction” is essential to appreciating the complexities of our legal and law enforcement systems.


In the U.S. legal system, jurisdiction is a foundational concept that refers to the authority of a court or a law enforcement agency. It determines the cases a court can hear and decide based on the type of case and the parties involved. We examined different types: subject matter, personal, and geographic, and we also differentiated between federal and state.

Contrasting it with venue, we learned that while jurisdiction is about the court’s power to decide a case, venue concerns the most appropriate location for a case to be heard.

In the context of law enforcement, jurisdiction determines the geographic area and legal boundaries where an agency has the power to enforce laws. This differs from court jurisdiction, which is about the court’s ability to decide a case.

Understanding these varied uses of ‘jurisdiction’ in courts and law enforcement is critical to fully grasp the intricacies of the American legal and law enforcement systems.

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File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  07/10/2023

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