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Subject Matter Jurisdiction versus Personal Jurisdiction

Personal Jurisdiction and Subject Matter Jurisdiction are legal terms-of-art that have tormented law students for hundreds of years. Conceptually, the authority of a court is something that most people don’t think about. For the average citizen, if you get a ticket that says to be at court, you show up. You don’t care whether the court you are going to is the right one for the offense and usually don’t question the authority of the court over you.
Jurisdiction is easier to think about if you put it into a more familiar context. Most people watch movies and televisions shows where the local law enforcement officers (LEO’s) are telling the federal officers from the FBI, CIA, or MIB (Men in Black), that they will not be, “putting up with that juris-my-diction crap.” Jurisdiction is what gives the local police authority over a particular case; and what gives the federal government authority over the LEO’s in some cases.

The legal community (as opposed to the law enforcement community) is much the same. As there are different law enforcement agencies comprising: transit security, city police, county sheriff, Federal agencies; there are different court systems comprising: Administrative hearing boards, Municipal/County District Court, Municipal/County Superior Court, and the Federal Courts.

The determination of which court hears what case is determined by Subject Matter Jurisdiction. Federal courts only have a “limited” subject matter jurisdiction. It can hear only certain kinds of cases, such as those that involve a federal crime or when there is diversity of citizenship. State courts have “general” subject matter jurisdiction and can hear most any case presented in the state. These general jurisdiction courts are further broken down by city/county lines, amount in controversy limits, and subject matter.

Personal jurisdiction is radically different. Personal jurisdiction concerns the circumstances under which a court has authority to make decisions binding on a particular party. It would be like forcing the LEO’s or the Feds to prove they can arrest you! In cop shows, this is easy—the bad-guy commits a crime, therefore jurisdiction exists to arrest said bad-guy. However, a court cannot hear a case unless it has established “personal” or “territorialjurisdiction over the parties to a suit. A court may only have personal jurisdiction over a Defendant if it can establish a valid connection or nexus between the Defendant and a state; such as domicile, conducting business, or committing a crime.

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