Subject Matter Jurisdiction
SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION
The power of a court to hear and determine cases of the general class to which the proceedings in question belong.
For a court to have authority to adjudicate a dispute, it must have jurisdiction over the parties and over the type of legal issues in dispute. The first type of jurisdiction is called personal jurisdiction; the other is subject matter jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction will be found if the persons involved in the litigation are present in the state or are legal residents of the state in which the lawsuit has been filed, or if the transaction in question has a substantial connection to the state.
Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the nature of the claim or controversy. The subject matter may be a criminal infringement, medical malpractice, or the probating of an estate. Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear particular types of cases. In state court systems, statutes that create different courts generally set boundaries on their subject matter jurisdiction. One state court or another has subject matter jurisdiction of any controversy that can be heard in courts of that state. Some courts specialize in a particular area of the law, such as probate law, family law, or juvenile law. A person who seeks custody of a child, for example, must go to a court that has authority in guardianship matters. A divorce can be granted only in a court designated to hear matrimonial cases. A person charged with a felony cannot be tried in a criminal court authorized to hear only misdemeanor cases.
In addition to the legal issue in dispute, the subject matter jurisdiction of a court may be determined by the monetary value of the dispute—the dollar amount in controversy. Small claims courts, also known as conciliation courts, are limited by state statutes to small amounts of money in controversy, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 depending upon the state. Therefore, if a plaintiff sues a defendant in small claims court for $50,000, the court will reject the lawsuit because it lacks subject matter jurisdiction based on the amount in controversy. The amount in controversy limitations are designed to regulate the flow of litigation in the various courts of the state, ensuring that complicated disputes over large sums of money will be heard in courts that have the time and resources to hear such cases.
The U.S. Constitution gives jurisdiction over some types of cases to federal courts only. Cases involving ambassadors and consuls or public ministers, admiralty and maritime cases, and cases in which the United States is a party must be heard in federal courts. Congress has also created subject matter jurisdiction by statute, mandating that antitrust suits, most securities lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings, and patent and copyright cases be heard in federal courts.
The Constitution also allows federal district courts to hear cases involving any rights or obligations that arise from the Constitution or other federal law. This is called federal question jurisdiction. Federal courts also have diversity jurisdiction, which gives the courts authority to hear cases involving disputes among citizens of different states. If, however, the amount in controversy is less than $10,000, federal question and diversity jurisdiction will not apply, and the case must be brought in state court. Even if the $10,000 amount is satisfied, a plaintiff may start the lawsuit in state court. A defendant, however, may seek to have the case moved to the federal court in that state by filing a transfer request called a removal action.
A defendant who believes that a court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case may raise this issue before the trial court or in an appeal from the judgment. If a defect in subject matter jurisdiction is found, the judgment will usually be rendered void, having no legal force or binding effect.