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The term jurisdiction is derived from the two Latin terms- ius, iuris meaning “law” and dicere meaning “to speak”.  Jurisdiction is therefore the authority granted to a formally constituted legal body to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters.  Jurisdiction is therefore the authority to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility.  Jurisdiction also denotes the geographical area or subject-matter to which such authority applies.

There are three main types of judicial jurisdiction: personal, territorial and subject matter:

  • Personal jurisdiction is the authority over a person, regardless of their location.
  • Territorial jurisdiction is the authority confined to a bounded space, including all those present therein, and events which occur there.
  • Subject Matter jurisdiction is the authority over the subject of the legal questions involved in the case.

Courts may also have jurisdiction that is exclusive, or concurrent (shared).  Where a court has exclusive jurisdiction over a territory or a subject matter, it is the only court that is authorized to address that matter.  Where a court has concurrent or shared jurisdiction, more than one court can adjudicate the matter.  In cases where concurrent jurisdiction exists, a party may attempt to engage in forum shopping, by bringing the case to a court which the party presumes will rule in its favor.

In the United States, jurisdiction is conceptually divided between jurisdiction over the subject matter of a case (subject matter jurisdiction) and jurisdiction over the person of the litigants (personal jurisdiction).  When the court exercises jurisdiction over property located within the perimeter of its powers without regard to personal jurisdiction over the litigants, it is called jurisdiction in rem.

The subject-matter jurisdiction of certain courts is limited to certain types of controversies (for example, suits in admiralty or suits where the monetary amount sought is less than a specified sum).  These are referred to as courts of special jurisdiction or court of limited jurisdiction.

A court whose subject-matter is not limited to certain types of controversy is referred to as a court of general jurisdiction.  In the United States, all state have courts of general jurisdiction; most states also have some courts of limited jurisdiction.  For example, federal courts in the United States are courts of limited jurisdiction.  

Federal jurisdiction can be divided into two as

  1. federal question jurisdiction and
  2. diversity jurisdiction.

The United States district courts also have jurisdiction to hear only cases arising under federal law and treaties, cases involving ambassadors, admiralty cases, controversies between states or between a state and citizens of another state, lawsuits involving citizens of different states and against foreign states and citizens.

Certain courts, particularly the United States Supreme Court and most state supreme courts, have discretionary jurisdiction.  By virtue of this, these courts can choose which cases to hear from among all the cases presented on appeal.  Such courts generally only choose to hear cases that would settle important and controversial points of law.  The most important aspect of discretionary jurisdiction is that though these courts have discretion to deny cases they can adjudicate; no court has the discretion to hear a case that falls outside of its subject-matter jurisdiction.

Original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction are also other types of jurisdiction.  A court of original jurisdiction hears cases as they are first initiated by a plaintiff, but a court of appellate jurisdiction may only hear an action after the court of original jurisdiction (or a lower appellate court) has heard the matter.  For example, the United States district courts have original jurisdiction over a number of different matters , but the United States Court of Appeals have appellate jurisdiction only over matters appealed from the district courts.  In the case of Georgia v. South Carolina, it was held that the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction in a case involving the correct location of a boundary between the two states.  

However, in a special class of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to exercise original jurisdiction.  Under 28 U.S.C. § 1251, the Supreme court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over controversies between two or more states, and original (but non-exclusive) jurisdiction over cases involving officials of foreign states, controversies between the federal government and a state, actions by a state against the citizens of another state or foreign country.

Inside Jurisdiction