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Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts

What is jurisdiction?

Jurisdiction glossary for 'jurisdiction' is a term that refers to whether a court has the power to hear a given case. Jurisdiction is important because it limits the power of a court to hear certain cases. If courts did not exercise appropriate jurisdiction, every court could conceivably hear every case brought to them, which would lead to confusing and contradictory results.

The concept of jurisdiction is a little easier to understand in state courts. Every state in the United States has its own court system to hear cases arising from that state. Suppose that a citizen of Mississippi sued a citizen of Alabama in a case involving a real estate transaction that took place in Georgia. The case could be brought in state court in Mississippi, or Alabama, because of where the parties live, or in Georgia, because of where the property at issue is located. However, such a case could not be brought in the state of Alaska, because none of the parties live there, and the state of Alaska has no attachment to the case at all. The Alaska court would dismiss any claims in this example because it would not have the appropriate jurisdiction.

A federal court, on the other hand, has more extensive jurisdiction than a state court. While the jurisdiction of state courts are limited by their boundaries, the federal court system covers the entire nation. For example, the Supreme Court can hear cases from any state. Federal Courts of Appeal can hear cases from any of the states in their region (except for the D.C. Circuit, which only hears cases from the District of Columbia). The federal courts also have jurisdiction on some cases where one party is outside of the United States of America.

Another form of jurisdiction is what is known as "subject matter jurisdiction" glossary for 'subject matter jurisdiction' -- whether a given federal court can rule on the subject matter of the case in question. For example, no federal court has "subject matter jurisdiction" to probate a will. The probate process has, traditionally, always been left up to the individual state courts. In contrast, cases involving patents are always in the "subject matter jurisdiction" of federal courts. Because the Constitution gives Congress the specific power to regulate the patent system, state courts do not have the appropriate jurisdiction to hear patent cases. Federal courts also have "exclusive" subject matter jurisdiction over copyright cases, admiralty cases, lawsuits involving the military, immigration laws, and bankruptcy proceedings.

There are three main types of "subject matter jurisdiction" in the federal court system - "federal question jurisdiction" glossary for 'federal question jurisdiction', "diversity jurisdiction" glossary for 'diversity jurisdiction', and "supplemental jurisdiction" glossary for 'supplemental jurisdiction'. This section of the module will discuss each of these in detail.

Federal Question Jurisdiction

Federal courts are generally said to have "federal question" jurisdiction, which means that federal courts will hear cases that involve issues touching on the Constitution or other federal laws. The source of "federal question" jurisdiction can be found in the Constitution. Article III states that the "judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority."

For example, a dispute between a landlord and a tenant over rent would normally not be a "federal question", since relationships between landlords and tenants come under state law, rather than federal law. However, the tenant could argue that she was being discriminated against on the basis of race. A federal law, the Fair Housing Act, protects the rights of tenants against racial discrimination. If the tenant claims that the landlord is violating the Fair Housing Act in a discriminatory fashion, she could bring her case in federal court because it raises a "federal question".

Diversity Jurisdiction

Federal law also authorizes federal courts to hear cases where the opposing parties are citizens of different states. This is known as "diversity jurisdiction", because the plaintiff and the defendant have different, or diverse, state citizenships. "Diversity jurisdiction" enables a federal court to hear cases where there is not a federal question. In diversity cases, the federal court provides a fair forum where citizens of different states can have their cases heard.

The federal law governing diversity jurisdiction states that a case must have an "amount-in-controversy" of $75,000 or more before a federal court can hear a case. Additionally, there are exceptions to diversity jurisdiction for some cases, including probate cases and family law cases, which are almost always handled in state courts.

For a federal court to exercise diversity jurisdiction, there must be "complete" diversity between the parties. For example, if a citizen of Georgia filed a lawsuit in federal court suing three defendants -- a citizen of Mississippi, a citizen of Alabama, and a citizen in Georgia -- the federal court would not have jurisdiction. Because there would be citizens of Georgia on both sides of the lawsuit, there would not be complete diversity between the plaintiff and all of the defendants.

Supplemental Jurisdiction

In "supplemental jurisdiction", a federal court can hear a claim that would normally come under the jurisdiction of a state court if it is related to a claim already before that court. Supplementary jurisdiction -- sometimes called "ancillary jurisdiction" or "pendent jurisdiction" -- is a common-law glossary for 'common law' device that allows a court to resolve all claims between opposing parties in one forum. Unlike other forms of jurisdiction, supplementary jurisdiction is discretionary -- a court can choose whether or not to exercise it in a given case.

For example, suppose that a tenant sued a landlord in federal court alleging she was discriminated against in violation of the Fair Housing Act. As stated above, that lawsuit would come under the "federal question" jurisdiction. But suppose that the tenant also complained that the landlord damaged her car by negligently breaking a window. This claim would not normally come under the jurisdiction of a federal court. However, a federal court could opt to exercise its "supplemental jurisdiction" and hear this claim along with the Fair Housing Act claim.

The following table will help distinguish between the three types of jurisdiction:

Types of Jurisdiction

Possible Basis for Jurisdiction

Federal Question



Source of jurisdiction


Federal Law

Common Law

Minimum amount in controversy




Does the court have the discretion to deny jurisdiction, if proper?




Must parties be from different states?



No, if the underlying case presents a federal question

In addition to these sources, the Supreme Court has "original jurisdiction" over a number of very specific cases. The original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court will be discussed in the section on the Supreme Court.

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