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Copy of 4.3: Introduction to Subject Matter Jurisdiction


  1. Read about subject matter jurisdiction
  2. Try the exercise
  3. Describe your country’s court system (or at least a part of the court system) in a post.

1. Introduction to Subject Matter Jurisdiction

  • You already learned that there are both federal and state court systems in the United States.
  • So, how do we know whether a case belongs in a federal court or state court? 
  • To answer this question, we need to understand more about subject matter jurisdiction in the United States.
  • Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear a certain type of case. 
  • Federal courts are courts of limited subject matter jurisdiction. That is, federal courts only have the power to hear certain types of cases.
  • The two main types of cases that federal courts can hear are where the courts may assert
    • (i) diversity subject matter jurisdiction, or
    • (ii) federal question subject matter jurisdiction. 

Be Careful! There are different ways to use the word “jurisdiction”

Depending on the context, jurisdiction can have multiple meanings in legal English. Usually it is not too difficult to understand the meaning if you understand the context.

a. Subject matter jurisdiction

You just read that subject matter jurisdiction refers to a court’s power to hear a case, but that is just one way we use the word jurisdiction.

b. Personal Jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction refers to the court’s power over the parties. This can get a little tricky in the United States. For example, if Patty lives in New Jersey and wants to sue David, who is from New York, she will need to find a court that has power – – personal jurisdiction – – over David. New York courts will have power over David because he lives in New York. Depending on the facts though, New Jersey court might or might not have power over David.

c. Original Jurisdiction vs. Appellate Jurisdiction

Original jurisdiction means the power to hear a case from the very beginning of the case. Appellate jurisdiction refers to the power to hear a case on appeal – – to determine whether an inferior court made a legal error or not.

For example, the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction to hear cases from United States Circuit Courts. But according to Article III, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction to hear disputes between states. For example, if New York sues New Jersey, that case will only be heard in the United States Supreme Court because the Supreme Court has exclusive original jurisdiction over lawsuits between states.

Here is a video on original jurisdiction:

d. Jurisdiction (territory)

Jurisdiction can also refer to the territory over which a court has power.m As a result, we sometimes refer to a state as a “jurisdiction”. In other words, California, New York, Florida, etc. are all jurisdictions!

For example, let’s say Patty sues David in a New Jersey court. But all the witnesses are in New York. David could argue that the case should be heard in a different jurisdiction – – New York!

Diversity Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The Constitution and federal statutes provide that federal courts may hear cases where the parties are from different states, meaning that the parties are diverse. Diversity jurisdiction emerged from a​ ​concern that parties in a​ ​civil case could face discrimination if they go on trial in a​ ​state other than their own.​ ​​ ​For example,​ ​a​ ​plaintiff from​ ​New​ ​York would have difficulty prevailing in his case if he brought the case in a Rhode​ ​Island state court.​ ​​People expect that federal courts, presided over by judges appointed by the President of the United States, will treat out-of-state parties more fairly,

The requirements for diversity jurisdiction are that  (i) no plaintiff is a​ ​“citizen”​ ​of the same state as any defendant, and (ii) that the amount in controversy exceeds​ ​$75,000. For example, if a plaintiff is from New York, and the defendant is from Rhode Island, we would say the parties are diverse because the plaintiff and defendant are citizens of different states. Next, so long as the amount in dispute in that case exceeds $75,000, the parties can bring the case to a federal court – – a federal court may assert diversity subject matter jurisdiction.

If you study civil procedure in a US law school you will learn the rules as to how to determine the ‘citizenship’  of business entities and natural persons. For now, as a general rule, you can assume that natural persons are citizens of where they permanently reside and businesses are citizens of where they are incorporated and where their main office is located.

Here is a video on diversity subject matter jurisdiction:

Federal Question Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Federal courts may also assert subject matter jurisdiction where cases arise under the Constitution or federal law. Courts interpret a case as ‘arising under’ the Constitution or federal law if the Constitution or the federal statute ‘creates’ plaintiff’s grounds for suing. For example, federal law empowers people to sue in federal court when their civil rights are violated. Likewise, plaintiffs may also sue in federal court based on violations of certain national labor laws, laws governing fair competition in business, and other national laws. In some cases, plaintiffs may only sue in federal court for violations of federal laws, therefore, the federal courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction – – meaning state courts do not have the power to hear those types of cases. 

2. Try the Exercise

3. In a post describe aspects of your country’s court system

You can discuss trial and appellate level courts, the structure of the court system, and the types of cases particular courts are empowered to hear. Use vocabulary such as:

trial court

trial level

appellate court

intermediate level appellate court

court of last resort

court of first resort

supreme court