Limited Jurisdiction Court

Limited Jurisdiction Court in the United States

Trial court whose authority to act is restricted to particular categories or cases. Limited jurisdiction courts (also called “Courts of Limited Jurisdiction”) are the opposite of courts possessing general jurisdiction and may be referred to as “minor” trial courts. Courts of limited jurisdiction are found at both the federal and state levels.

At the state level, these courts may have such names as district, municipal, metropolitan, magistrate, domestic relations, or justice of the peace courts. Such courts typically have their jurisdiction limited in one of two ways. First, they may hear only criminal or civil cases of a less serious variety. For example, a court may be limited to misdemeanor-level criminal offenses or to civil actions having a money value of less than five or ten thousand dollars. Second, limits may be established by defining the categories of questions a court is empowered to hear. Examples would include small claims, traffic, or juvenile courts. The federal system contains several specialized courts of limited jurisdiction, including the Tax Court and the Court of International Trade. Limited jurisdiction courts tend to serve smaller geographic areas than general jurisdiction courts and are typically quite decentralized. (1)

Analysis and Relevance

Upwards of 80 percent of matters litigated in state courts are heard by limited jurisdiction courts. These are high volume courts, and they deal with criminal or civil questions that are not particularly serious. Several consequences stem from this situation.

First, limited jurisdiction courts are often criticized as engaging in “short-cut” or “mass production” justice. Given current funding, few courts at this level can afford the luxury of lengthy case-processing time. Virtually no cases at this level are actually tried, and a large number of these are not even contested. Second, where courts of limited jurisdiction are not part of an integrated state system of justice, some judges may have limited formal legal training. Third, the large numbers of courts at this level are substantially responsible for the fragmented character of some state court structures. Finally, these courts are seldom courts “of record.” That is, no record is kept of the proceedings. This produces uneven if not haphazard attention to procedural standards. It also means that if a case is appealed from one of these courts, it must be heard again in its entirety (de novo). While some of these criticisms are serious, it is clear that courts of limited jurisdiction dispose of the vast bulk of matters entering the American court system. (2)

State Courts Trial Courts: Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

In every state, most cases come to trial in courts of limited jurisdiction, such as small-claims, juvenile, and traffic courts. These are specialized courts that hear only one or a relatively few types of cases. They are the most numerous type of court in the United States and in some states these courts handle more than 80 percent of all trials. About 100 million cases come through these courts annually, but the overwhelming majority of these are simple traffic cases in which motorists plead guilty by mail.” (3)


Notes and References

  1. Definition of Limited Jurisdiction Court from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
  2. Id.
  3. Information about Courts of Limited Jurisdiction in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Limited Jurisdiction Court: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

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State Administrative Materials and Resources

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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 Limited Jurisdiction Court when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

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