There are limits to the legal authority of each court to hear and decide a case. These limits fall into three main types:

  • Subject Matter Jurisdiction - Authority confined to the subject of the legal questions involved in the case.
  • Territorial Jurisdiction - Authority confined to a geographic area.
  • Personal Jurisdiction - Authority over a person, regardless of his or her location, or over property. (Note: a “legal person” can be a business or other legal entity.)
NOTE: For jurisdiction to be complete, a court must have both subject matter jurisdiction and either personal or territorial jurisdiction.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction:

A court may act only in disputes within its subject jurisdiction. For example, not every court can grant a divorce.

  • The International Court of Justice acts as a world court. It has a dual jurisdiction. (1) It decides, in accordance with international law, disputes of a legal nature that are submitted to it by countries (jurisdiction in contentious cases.) (2) It gives advisory opinions on legal questions at the request of United Nations agencies authorized to make such a request (advisory jurisdiction).
  • The US Federal Courts have jurisdiction over five basic kinds of cases. They hear: (1) cases in which the United States is a party; and (2) cases involving foreign officials. In civil matters, if more than $10,000 is involved, they may also hear (3) cases with parties from different states, and (4) cases involving the Constitution of the United States and federal laws. Federal courts also hear (5) “federal specialties,” cases involving patents, copyrights, or bankruptcies.
  • Each of the 50 states has a court system which handles cases involving state law. These include criminal matters, probate, juvenile, traffic, family matters, real estate and business contracts, and personal injury claims.

Territorial Jurisdiction:

A court may act only in disputes within its territorial jurisdiction. For example, a court in Nevada cannot, as a rule, assert jurisdiction over a defendant who resides in California.

Territorial jurisdiction can be international, national, regional, state, or local

  • The California state court system has trial courts, called Superior Courts, at the county level. There are 58 counties, each containing a Superior Court which has jurisdiction over cases involving events that took place in the county, or if defendants reside in or are served with a summons and complaint in that county.
  • Tribal Courts are part of the Native American Reservation system. Indian tribes - as sovereign nations - historically have inherent jurisdictional power over everything occurring within their territory. Tribal courts are courts of general jurisdiction which continue to have broad criminal jurisdiction.

Personal Jurisdiction:

A court may act only in disputes if it has jurisdiction over the parties involved in a particular lawsuit.

  • Traditionally, in civil proceedings, the defendant or land in dispute was required to be physically served with process in the state where the court sits. Now, however, courts in a state can exercise jurisdiction over a party located outside the state, if the party has sufficient contacts within the state.
  • A related concept is “venue,” which is where the case is heard. Each case can only be brought in certain venues.




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