Types of Jurisdiction

Earlier in this article, we introduced the notion of jurisdiction. All courts have two types of jurisdiction: subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction. Let’s go over how these types of jurisdiction work for federal courts.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Subject matter jurisdiction concerns the area of law over which a court has authority. There are two “subsets” of subject matter jurisdiction.

Federal Question Jurisdiction

Federal courts can decide cases involving disputes under federal law, the U.S. government, conflicts between states or between the U.S. and foreign governments. The case has to raise a “federal question” in order to be heard in federal court.

Diversity Jurisdiction

A case can be filed in federal court because of a “diversity of citizenship” of the parties involved, meaning that the case involves citizens of different states. Only cases involving more than $75,000 can be filed in federal court, and any diversity jurisdiction case can also be brought in a state court.

Personal Jurisdiction

Personal jurisdiction is the question of whether a court has authority over an individual or business entity. For example, a court in Vermont cannot make a California resident come to Vermont to defend a lawsuit if he’s never had contact with that state — either by going to that state, having contact with someone in that state, selling something to a Vermont resident, etc. Similarly, foreigners can’t be made to come to U.S. courts unless the foreigner has had contacts with people in the U.S. relating to the case.

Generally, corporations are treated like individuals in federal and state courts. They can sue and be sued. For the purposes of diversity jurisdiction, there are also rules that determine of which state a corporation is a “citizen.”

Personal jurisdiction sounds simple, and in many cases it is.  If you’ve never been to Alaska and you’ve never done business with anyone in Alaska, then you cannot be sued in Alaska.  Things get tricky however, in those cases in which someone has limited connections to the forum in question.  For example, if you’re a California resident and called someone in Mississippi to make a defamatory statement about someone who lives in Wyoming, can that person sue you for defamation in Wyoming?  Can they sue you in Mississippi?