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What does "Lack of Jurisdiction" Mean? Explaining Courts' Power Limits

"Lack of jurisdiction" refers to a court's absence of legal authority to hear a case or issue a ruling. It's a fundamental concept ensuring cases are heard by the appropriate judicial body. Curious about how this affects legal outcomes? Dive deeper to understand its impact on justice.
Pablo Garcia
Pablo Garcia

Jurisdiction refers to a court’s power to hear a legal controversy and issue orders regarding it. When a court for legal reasons does not have authority over the parties to a case or the subject matter of the case, it is deemed to have a lack of jurisdiction. A court which lacks jurisdiction cannot hear the case or render any decision about it.

A court has jurisdiction over a matter only to the extent granted by the Constitution and the legislature of the state in which the court is located. In order for it to hear a case, the court must have jurisdiction over the parties, the subject matter, and the particular judgment or remedy being sought. All three types of jurisdiction must be met. When jurisdiction is contested, the court retains jurisdiction to decide that issue.

Man climbing a rope
Man climbing a rope

Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the court’s authority to decide the issue in controversy, such a contract matter or a criminal offense. State courts are courts of “general jurisdiction.” They may decide any legal issues not prohibited by their state’s law or governed exclusively by federal law. For instance, state courts have a lack of jurisdiction over bankruptcy and immigration cases, as these are exclusively within the jurisdiction of federal courts.

Jurisdiction over parties refers primarily to their state citizenship. A court in state A has a lack of jurisdiction over a citizen of state B, unless the citizen committed a criminal offense or civil wrong in state A. If the citizen of state B wishes to contest the jurisdiction of state A, she can file a “special and limited appearance.” This allows her to raise the jurisdictional objection without submitting to the court’s authority on any other issue.

The jurisdiction to render the judgment sought concerns the statutory limits on a court’s power. For example, in civil small claims actions, the monetary damages claimed must be under a certain amount. This is usually about $10,000 US Dollars (USD). In criminal cases, a court would not have jurisdiction to order a punishment not authorized by statute.

Appeals courts have jurisdiction to correct or overturn lower court decisions. However, appeals courts have a lack of jurisdiction over any case in which a final order has not yet been entered by the lower court, or the time to appeal has expired. Appeals courts also lack jurisdiction over legal issues that are “moot.” This can happen when a case is settled while the appeal is pending or the matter is otherwise no longer in controversy.

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Discussion Comments


The supreme court can have jurisdiction at any time over a constitutional issue under rule 20 of their rules. A case can be brought directly in that court originally, that's where Gidon vs. Wainwright (1963) right to counsel began, from a letter that was construed as a pleading directly from a state prisoner. (who was obviously innocent, more state abuse)


@MikeMason: My guess is that local courts and district courts have to have some kind of jurisdictional line drawn in the sand in order to prevent a case pile-up. A lot of people want to pursue claims for simply the principle of the thing, not the actual monetary value or damages. This sort of thing only requires the services of a local court, not the more complicated scope of a district court.

Most claims do fall along financial lines, not the scope of the offense or the possibility of appeals. A local judge can easily rule on a $500 dog bite case or a $450 bicycle theft. District judges tend to handle cases where the stakes and damages are much higher.


I made a small claims case at the District Court and it was dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction. I was told to take the case to Local Court.

Why are Local and District Courts given jurisdiction according to the amount of money involved in claims cases rather than based on territory or appeals?


@feruze-- the US Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction, but only under certain circumstances.

If for example, a case involves the US government, then only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over that case.

In other situations, a Supreme Court has jurisdiction if a case has been decided on by lower courts and an appeal has been made to the Supreme Court about the decision. But not every case can be appealed at the Supreme Court, only some cases are eligible.

For the most part, the Supreme Court doesn't have jurisdiction over cases that can be handled by the lower courts and cases that don't involve any federal issue.


How about Supreme Court jurisdiction? Does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction over all other lower courts? Can it decide to take up a case from a lower court at any time?

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