Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts

Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts in the United States

The Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts and the Federal Courts

In the words of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts: Before a federal court can hear a case, or “exercise its jurisdiction,” certain conditions must be met. First, under the Constitution, federal courts exercise only “judicial” powers. This means that federal judges may interpret the law only through the resolution of actual legal disputes, referred to in Article III of the Constitution as “Cases or Controversies.” A court cannot attempt to correct a problem on its own initiative, or to answer a hypothetical legal question. Second, in an actual case or controversy, the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit also must have legal “standing” to ask the court for a decision. That means the plaintiff must have been aggrieved, or legally harmed in some way, by the defendant.

Third, the case must present a category of dispute that the law in question was designed to address, and it must be a complaint that the court has the power to remedy. In other words, the court must be authorized, under the Constitution or a federal law, to hear the case and grant appropriate relief to the plaintiff. Finally, the case cannot be “moot,” that is, it must present an ongoing problem for the court to resolve. The federal courts, thus, are courts of “limited” jurisdiction because they may only decide certain types of cases as provided by Congress or as identified in the Constitution.

“Federal question” jurisdiction and “diversity” jurisdiction

Although the details of the complex web of federal jurisdiction that Congress has given the federal courts is beyond the scope of this brief entry, it is important to understand that there are two main sources of the cases coming before the federal courts: “federal question” jurisdiction and “diversity” jurisdiction. In general, federal question jurisdiction arises in cases that involve the U.S. government, the U.S. Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments. A case that raises such a “federal question” may be filed in federal court. Examples of such cases might include a claim by an individual for entitlement to money under a federal government program such as Social Security, a criminal prosecution by the government that alleges someone violated a federal law, or a challenge to actions taken by a federal agency.

A case also may be filed in federal court based on the “diversity of citizenship” of the litigants, such as between citizens of different states, or between U.S. citizens and those of another country. To ensure fairness to the out-of-state litigant, the Constitution provides that such cases may be heard in a federal court. An important limit to diversity jurisdiction is that only cases involving more than $75,000 in potential damages may be filed in a federal court. Claims below that amount may only be pursued in state court. Moreover, any diversity jurisdiction case regardless of the amount of money involved may be brought in a state court rather than a federal court.

Bankruptcy matters

Federal courts also have jurisdiction over all bankruptcy matters, which Congress has determined should be addressed in federal courts rather than the state courts. Through the bankruptcy process, individuals or businesses that can no longer pay their creditors may either seek a court-supervised liquidation of their assets, or they may reorganize their financial affairs and work out a plan to pay their debts.

Although federal courts are located in every state, they are not the only forum available to potential litigants. In fact, the great majority of legal disputes in American courts, civil or criminal, are addressed in the separate state court systems. State courts have jurisdiction over virtually all divorce and child custody matters, probate and inheritance issues, real estate questions, and juvenile matters, and they handle most criminal cases, contract disputes, traffic violations, and personal injury cases. In addition, certain categories of legal disputes may be resolved in special courts or entities that are part of the federal executive or legislative branches or state and federal administrative agencies.

Types of Jurisdiction

The federal courts have several different types of jurisdiction, depending on whether or not:

  • they share the power to hear the case with State courts, and
  • they are the first court to hear the case.

Exclusive and Concurrent Jurisdiction

In some cases, the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction. That is, those cases can be heard only in the federal courts.

Original and Appellate Jurisdiction

A court in which a case is first heard is said to have original jurisdiction over that case. A court that hears a case on appeal from a lower court has appellate jurisdiction over that case. For further information in the constitutional law platform on appellate jurisdiction, click here. For further information in the constitutional law platform on original jurisdiction, click here.

Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts. This part provides references, in relation to Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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