We often discuss jurisdiction, or hear it used on our favorite TV crime shows, but what does it really mean? When is something a federal, state or local matter and who can enforce which laws? How is it determined?

The primary distinctions between areas of jurisdiction are codified at a national level as part of the U.S. Constitution. The framers of the Constitution set aside certain rights and obligations as things that should be handled by state governments while others needed to be handled by the federal government. While this has fluctuated some over time, the general boundaries between jurisdictions remain the same and usually depend on whether something is of national importance or a local concern.

Different states do not have jurisdiction over one another, unless a crime is committed against someone in another state or across multiple states.

State Jurisdiction

General Jurisdiction

State courts are courts of “general jurisdiction”. They hear all the cases rthat are not specifically selected for federal courts. Just as the federal courts interpret federal laws, state courts interpret state laws. This means that each state has its own laws that they must enforce unless it becomes a federal issue.

Types of Cases

Roughly 90% of all the cases heard in the American court system happen at the state level. Examples include:

  • A crime that is a violation of state law.
  • A controversy arising out of the state constitution or other state laws.
  • A case in which the state is a party, such as state tax violations.
  • Most real estate cases, malpractice, personal injury cases, and contract disputes.
  • All family, divorce, custody, inheritance and probate cases.
  • Most traffic and juvenile cases.

Federal Jurisdiction

Limited Jurisdiction

As the framers wrote the Constitution, some feared that the federal courts might threaten the independence of the states and the people. To combat this fear the framers set up a federal court system that can only hear cases in special circumstances. This means the federal court system has “limited jurisdiction.” Since the federal courts can only hear certain kinds of cases, most of the day-to-day cases that courts deal with happen in state courts.

Basically, federal courts hear only 2 types of cases; those that raise a “federal question” and those involving “diversity of citizenship”.

Federal Question Cases

These cases involve the U.S. Government, the U.S. Constitution or other federal laws. Examples include:

  • A crime that is a violation of federal law.
  • Civil cases based on federal laws such as employment discrimination.
  • Cases involving interstate commerce or interstate criminal activity.
  • A controversy arising out of the U.S. Constitution or other federal laws, such as a violation of a protection guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
  • A case in which the United States is a party, such as Social Security claims or federal tax violations.
  • A controversy between two states.
  • A case involving foreign governments such as international trade or foreign treaties.
  • All bankruptcy, patent, copyright, Native American, and maritime cases.

Diversity of Citizenship Cases

These cases involve disputes between two parties not from the same state or country. Examples include:

  • Between citizens of two different states.
  • Between a U.S. citizen and a citizen of another country.
  • NOTE: The case must involve a claim for at least $75,000 in damages – if not then it must be filed in state court instead.