Legal Jurisdictions: An Easy To Understand Explanation

Determining the proper jurisdiction is the first step in a lawsuit. Pick the wrong one and your suit could be over before it begins. To make matters more complicated, our tiered court system can be as complicated as the tax code.

While your attorney will most likely choose the right court to file your case, knowing the rules yourself never hurts. So to aid in your legal learning, below is a general explanation of U.S. jurisdictional rules and the different types of courts in the American judicial system.

What Is Jurisdiction?

Outlined in federal and state civil procedures, jurisdiction deals with determining which court authority has the right and power to govern over a given controversy. At the macro level, there are two types of jurisdictional categories – subject matter and personal. In the simplest terms, subject matter jurisdiction has to do with the type of case being filed (including the amount), and personal jurisdiction has to do with where the two parties either live or work, or otherwise have a nexus to. Plaintiffs are responsible for showing why a given court has jurisdiction over a lawsuit.

When Do You File A Lawsuit In A Federal Court As Opposed To A State Court?

A claim can either be filed in a state court or a federal court.  As a rule of thumb, federal courts deal with cross-border lawsuits, cases that have to do with questions of federal law, and generally any interstate claim that is over $75,000 if either party requests that the case be removed to federal court . This does not mean that cases involving more than $75,000 can’t be heard in state court, but it does allow for strategic filing under that limit to deprive the defendant of an automatic right to remove the case from state court (though it could still be removed for other reasons, such as other jurisdictional reasons).

When Do You File A Lawsuit In A State Court As Opposed To A Federal Court?

Most lawsuits not involving federal matters (such as copyright and patent law) between two U.S. citizens can be filed in the state court system. It’s true that an inter-state dispute can be filed in a federal court, but it also can be filed in a state court. It may happen where a case is filed in state court, but the judge moves it to federal court (such as at the request of the defendant when over the $75,000 limit as mentioned above).

Since most cases can be filed in state courts, the question becomes which state court. Here are the general rules:

  1. If you receive a summons in a state, but don’t live in that state, it may be sufficient to establish jurisdiction.
  2. If you live in a state or have a business in a state, said state has jurisdiction over you.
  3. One can consent to jurisdiction – either voluntarily or implicitly. Implicit jurisdiction could be something as simple as driving on the streets of a state; basically, the “when in Rome” rule applies with regards to implicit consent.
  4. Minimum Contact standards are another way to prove jurisdiction. Minimum contact applies when:
    1. The defendant regularly engages in activities in the state and the legal action is related to said activities (e.g., if you live in Arizona, and regularly comment on New York Times articles, you can be sued in New York for defamation if one of your comments is libelous).
    2. The defendant regularly engages in activities in the state and the legal action is unrelated to said activities (e.g., if you live in Arizona, have an online business selling widgets to New Yorkers, you can be sued in New York for defamation).
    3. A court usually does not have jurisdiction over an individual who has limited contact with a state and the act in question is unrelated to whatever contact does exist.
    4. A court does, however, have jurisdiction if a sporadic action – even a single act – is related to claim (e.g., if you post one defamatory comment on a website operated out of another state, and your comment is defamatory, you can be sued in that state even though you may not have any other connection to said state.)
  • The above rules may not necessarily apply in your state.  For example, areas under federal jurisdiction within a state – like certain military bases and Native American reservations — may render them exempt from state jurisdiction.  Additionally, diplomats are generally immune under international law from being subject to the jurisdiction of a state without the consent of their home country’s government.

Different Types of State Courts

All states have different types of courts for different types of lawsuits and litigation. While variations exist between states, here’s a hypothetical example of what the monetary jurisdiction of each court might be:

Small Claims Court – for cases involving less than $5,000

Municipal Court – for cases involving between $5,001 and $25,000

Superior Court – for cases involving between more than $25,000

Other types of state-level courts include:

  • Family Court
  • Bankruptcy Court
  • Juvenile Court

In addition, some states have mandatory venue laws which dictate the exact court in which certain types of cases must be heard – statutes that override the complaining party’s preference.