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Subject Matter Jurisdiction in Courts

4. What is “Subject-Matter Jurisdiction”?

Subject-matter jurisdiction refers to the types of cases (subject matter of the case) that a court can hear (preside over). For example, a superior court in a state may not be able to hear a family, probate, or taxation matter. Similarly, a federal district court may not hear bankruptcy or immigration cases. Subject-matter jurisdiction is particularly important between federal and state courts. In some instances, a state may not be able to hear certain federal matters, and vice versa. For example, money laundering is a federal crime. A state generally cannot hear a case solely involving federal money-laundering charges, as it is falls outside of its subject-matter jurisdiction. On the other hand, assault is a state law crime that is generally outside of the jurisdiction of the Federal District Court.

•    General Subject-Matter Jurisdiction – Some state courts have general subject-matter jurisdiction. This means that the state court has the authority to hear any type of case involving state law.

⁃    Note: Federal District Courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction.

⁃    Example: The state superior court typically has authority to hear cases that are generally heard in lower-level courts. The reverse, however, is not true. Lower level courts (such as a municipal court) cannot hear cases that are outside of its limited, subject-matter jurisdiction.

•    Limited Subject-Matter Jurisdiction – Often state courts divide jurisdiction based on the following:

⁃    the subject matter of a case,
⁃    the amount in controversy (or possible penalty for a crime), or
⁃    where individuals are located or reside.

Every state in the US has at least one court of general, subject-matter jurisdiction. Likewise, every state has some form of court with limited subject-matter jurisdiction.

•    Discussion: As stated above, the state superior court typically has general, subject-matter jurisdiction within the state. Do you believe it is important to have state courts of general jurisdiction? Why are courts of limited jurisdiction necessary?

•    Practice Question: Michelle hires Winston as a general contractor to build her home. Winston does a very sloppy job, which leads to Michelle suing him in state court for breach of contract and damages of $25,000. She sues in an intermediate trial court with a jurisdictional limit of $25,000. The court does not allow for a jury trial. Winston is not happy with the judge serving as trier of fact in the case. What may or should Winston do in this situation?

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