Fact Checked

What is State Jurisdiction?

Alexis W.
Alexis W.

State jurisdiction means that a state court has the right to make a legally binding decision that affects the parties involved in the case. In other words, a plaintiff and defendant in a case must have enough contact with the state that it is fair for the state court to determine what their legal rights are. State jurisdiction exists over any matter in which the state has a vested interest, such as the divorce of individuals within the state, the sale of property within the state, or the breach of a contract made within the state.

Most state courts are courts of general jurisdiction. This means the courts have broad authority to hear and decide cases. In fact, state courts are often viewed as having more power within the United States to decide different types of cases than federal courts, which are courts of limited jurisdiction. This is the case because the US Constitution mandated that all powers not specifically enumerated within the Constitution for the federal government were reserved for the state governments. State jurisdiction for all of these different types of cases is referred to as subject matter jurisdiction; this means the state has the power to hear cases about that given subject.

The Constitution grants some power to the federal government and some to the states.
The Constitution grants some power to the federal government and some to the states.

As such, because state courts are courts of general jurisdiction, state jurisdiction exists in a wide variety of cases. A person may bring a tort action in state court, which means he may sue someone else for negligently or intentionally injuring him. A family law case, a criminal case, a breach of contract case, and a small claims court case may also be brought in state court. The only types of cases that cannot be brought in state court are those that the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over: cases arising from the Constitution and bankruptcy and federal tax law cases.

In addition to subject matter jurisdiction, however, state courts must also have personal jurisdiction. This means they must have the right to make a decision for the plaintiff and defendant involved in the case. In order for the state to have subject matter jurisdiction, the defendant being sued or being charged with criminal charges must have sufficient contact with the state that he has given the state power over him. For example, if a defendant comes into a state and drives on its roads and has an accident, state jurisdiction exists because the defendant voluntarily came into the state, enjoyed the roads and caused damage.

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Discussion Comments


@Comfyshoes - I just wanted to say that sometimes federal law and state laws do clash and there is some confusion. For example, the issue of gambling is up to the individual states, however online gambling is illegal in the United States according to the Wire Act of 1961.

The problem is that no one back then even thought that online casinos would be possible so many feel that the law is outdated and raises questions regarding federal vs. state jurisdiction. There are online games allowed pertaining to skill and chance in Washington D.C. as well as poker which was instituted by the Washington D.C. lottery.

I read that many of the online gambling companies are now defunct and some moved overseas. I just am a little confused as to why the Washington D.C. lottery is allowed to develop online gambling but the rest of the country can’t.

It really does not matter to me if we have online gambling or not, but it does raise a lot of questions regarding state’s rights vs. that of the federal government.


@SunnySkys- I agree that it is a little confusing because what may be legal in one state is illegal in another and it is hard to keep track of the laws that are in place, but I do agree that they should give state rights more power and lessen that of the federal government.

I know that gay marriage is legal in a few states that voted it in, but illegal in other states that were against it. Here the people of the individual states got to decide what was best for their state.

I know that in criminal cases sometimes the jurisdiction is shared by the state court and a federal court. This happens a lot with high profile cases that involve breaking federal laws such as kidnapping, tax evasion, terrorism, bank robbery, and murder for example. In these cases the defendant may be tried in federal court instead of state court because the crimes are more egregious.


@sunnySkys - I disagree. We are one nation, why should the laws be carried out differently just because you're in a different geographical area of the country? In my opinion the federal government should have the most power and the laws should be the same everywhere.

Sure, there are certain things that it makes sense to carry out at the state level. The federal government certainly doesn't need to be involved in local zoning ordinances for example. But I firmly believe most things, and especially criminal law, should be carried out the same everywhere in the country.


I am glad to see that the states have more jurisdiction over some things. In my opinion the jurisdiction of the state courts should be broadened even more. I personally think the federal government has way too much power over the individual states.

The regions in our country are very diverse and thus have very diverse needs. I just don't think the federal government is equipped to be making all of these decisions for the states. And I also don't think that every little law needs to be the same in every state. I just don't think it works!


I personally find the difference between state court jurisdiction and federal jurisdiction incredibly confusing. It seems like there is always some state legalizing something (for instance, gay marriage) and then the federal court comes in and more or less throws it out.

I understand that (and greatly appreciate) the federal government does not need to have complete lawmaking control, it’ just very hard to follow.

I mean, it seems that all of these people ran to get married because it was finally legal, and then the federal government shook things up a bit.

I’m still not sure whether gay marriage is actually legal in some states or not; I mean, for real legal, not just legal until the federal government says it’s not anymore.

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    • The Constitution grants some power to the federal government and some to the states.
      By: klikk
      The Constitution grants some power to the federal government and some to the states.