What is Jurisdiction?

We have all heard the legal term “jurisdiction” at one time or another, but what does it mean? When you hear the word jurisdiction used with reference to a court proceeding, think of power. Courts have various types of jurisdiction, and all relate to the court’s power – either power over persons or power to hear and decide particular kinds of cases.

Courts have two types of jurisdiction: subject matter jurisdiction and in personam jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction relates to a court’s power to decide a particular class of case. For example, our Bankruptcy Courts decide only cases brought under Title 11 of the U.S. Code, dealing with protection of insolvent debtors. Your local district magistrate court handles only minor criminal cases and non-criminal cases where $8,000 or less is at stake. These courts do not have the power to hear cases outside their jurisdictional parameters.

In personam or personal jurisdiction is a bit trickier – it relates to the power of a court to haul a person before it and adjudicate his or her rights. Personal jurisdiction is largely territorial. For a proper exercise of jurisdiction, a court must have a meaningful connection to the party before it, either by way of residence within the court’s territory, involvement in a transaction or controversy within the court’s geographic limits, or some other connection to the forum. The law does not allow a court to exercise jurisdiction where it would cause unreasonable cost or inconvenience; an example would be a suit brought by a party in a California court against a Pennsylvania resident based on a car accident which happened in Philadelphia. The court in California would not have the power to render a binding judgment on the local defendant. The only court having jurisdiction would be located in Pennsylvania, the site of the accident. Our Constitution mandates that jurisdiction, like power itself, must be exercised judiciously.
– John Butera

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