Jurisdiction - United States

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  • Federal question jurisdiction
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  • Class Action Fairness Act of 2005
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The primary distinctions between areas of jurisdiction are codified at a national level. As a common law system, jurisdiction is conceptually divided between jurisdiction over the subject matter of a case and jurisdiction over the person of the litigants. (See personal jurisdiction.) Sometimes a court may exercise jurisdiction over property located within the perimeter of its powers without regard to personal jurisdiction over the litigants; this is called jurisdiction in rem.

A court whose subject-matter jurisdiction is limited to certain types of controversies (for example, suits in admiralty or suits where the monetary amount sought is less than a specified sum) is sometimes referred to as a court of special jurisdiction or court of limited jurisdiction.

A court whose subject-matter is not limited to certain types of controversy is referred to as a court of general jurisdiction. In the U.S. states, each state has courts of general jurisdiction; most states also have some courts of limited jurisdiction. Federal courts (those operated by the federal government) are courts of limited jurisdiction. Federal jurisdiction is divided into federal question jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction. The United States district courts may hear only cases arising under federal law and treaties, cases involving ambassadors, admiralty cases, controversies between states or between a state and citizens of another state, lawsuits involving citizens of different states, and against foreign states and citizens.

Certain courts, particularly the United States Supreme Court and most state supreme courts, have discretionary jurisdiction, meaning that they can choose which cases to hear from among all the cases presented on appeal. Such courts generally only choose to hear cases that would settle important and controversial points of law. Though these courts have discretion to deny cases they otherwise could adjudicate, no court has the discretion to hear a case that falls outside of its subject-matter jurisdiction.

It is also necessary to distinguish between original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction. A court of original jurisdiction has the power to hear cases as they are first initiated by a plaintiff, while a court of appellate jurisdiction may only hear an action after the court of original jurisdiction (or a lower appellate court) has heard the matter. For example, in United States federal courts, the United States district courts have original jurisdiction over a number of different matters (as mentioned above), and the United States court of appeals have appellate jurisdiction over matters appealed from the district courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, in turn, has appellate jurisdiction (of a discretionary nature) over the Courts of Appeals, as well as the state supreme courts, by means of writ of certiorari.

However, in a special class of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to exercise original jurisdiction. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1251, the Supreme court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over controversies between two or more states, and original (but non-exclusive) jurisdiction over cases involving officials of foreign states, controversies between the federal government and a state, actions by a state against the citizens of another state or foreign country.

The word "jurisdiction" is also used, especially in informal writing, to refer to a state or political subdivision generally, or to its government, rather than to its legal authority.

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