Understanding Litigation Jurisdiction, Venue and Forum

Litigation jurisdiction can be defined as the authority of a court to rule on legal matters between parties. The term jurisdiction is synonymous with the word power and a court can possess this power only over matters granted to it by the Constitution, or legislation. The federal courts have jurisdiction that encompasses the whole United States and the states have jurisdiction only within the state itself. Counties and cities have separate litigation jurisdictions that can be independent of both the state and federal courts.

In any legal dispute, jurisdiction must be established to make sure the court has the authority to preside over the hearing. Each state outlines its own jurisdictional requirements and while there are many similarities there are also differences and pitfalls to consider. While reviewing state jurisdictional requirements it will also be important to understand federal rules of litigation jurisdiction as well.

Finding the Right Court

To establish litigation jurisdiction, three components must be established. If any of the following points is lacking, the court may not have the power to rule on the case. Cases tried in a court without the proper authority may be overturned by appellate review. If an appellate court overturns a lower court’s ruling based on lack of jurisdiction the case will be thrown out and will have to be retried.

For a court to have jurisdictional authority to rule on a legal action the court must have:

  • Jurisdiction over the person
  • Jurisdiction over the subject matter
  • Jurisdiction over the area or territory

Jurisdiction over the person is usually based on where the defendant lives, does business or where the problem occurred. Most states recognize residence and business location to establish personal jurisdiction. A court may also consider any travels to a given area outside of one state and into another. Even though a business may be located in Indiana, if they enter a different state for business reasons jurisdiction could be established in that area also. Presence in the community by both parties in any form can establish jurisdiction. To attempt to pull one party out of his state and try them in a different state in which he has no personal or business presence would be a lack of litigation jurisdiction for that court.

The concept of minimal contact can establish jurisdiction in cases involving online vendors. In these cases, an online supplier of one state, shipping products into another state could create a minimal contact situation and establish that states jurisdictional rights over him.

Jurisdiction over the subject matter relates to the authority given to the court to hear certain issues. As an example, state courts cannot hear a bankruptcy filing as that authority is given to the Federal courts only. A state court can hear contract and civil rights issues but that is limited also.  A small claims court may only hear cases involving a small sum of money, usually about $10,000 or less. Limited civil courts can hear cases up to $25,000 and in cases where the value is over $25,000 the suit would be brought in federal courts.

As the plaintiff, it is your burden to file in a court that has the proper litigation jurisdiction over the subject matter of your lawsuit. As mentioned above, federal courts have jurisdiction over bankruptcy filings and in controversies between states and between parties from different states. In addition, there are rules which establish special courts for certain matters like traffic courts, family or juvenile courts, landlord and tenant courts, probate court and you cannot sue the federal government in any state court, only federal court.

Jurisdiction over an area or territory relates to the boundaries which a court has the authority to decide cases within. A state court does not have litigation jurisdiction in neighboring states but only within its own state. A county court has jurisdiction only within that one county and the Supreme Court has jurisdiction everywhere. We must also consider venue and forum when considering filing a case.

The Proper Venue

Jurisdiction and Venue may seem very similar but they should not be confused as the same. A state court may have Jurisdiction over the whole state but the proper Venue for a trial may be only within a certain county of that state

The proper venue of a court hearing is based on a convenient location for all parties involved. In most cases, the proper venue to try a criminal case would be in the judicial district where the crime took place. In most civil actions, the correct venue is normally in the area where the defendant lives or where the situation took place. In some cases a defending attorney may ask the court for a change of Venue, to ensure a fair trial for his client based on negative news or other factors. We will go over venue further in a future article.

The Proper Forum

The proper forum for a lawsuit can be difficult for a court to decide but can be critical for both the plaintiff and the defendant. For a court to be the proper forum for a trial or lawsuit it must also have jurisdiction over the person and the subject matter. A Forum selection clause in a contract sets the court and location to remedy any disagreement to that contract and attempts to establish jurisdiction and venue for any legal action taken, which may be different if no such forum clause was accepted.

A forum selection clause in a contract may take away some of your jurisdictional rights in establishing a particular court to have jurisdiction and venue rights in an area that may not otherwise have such power. Many contracts have forum selection clauses and by signing those contracts you are agreeing to allow a specific court the power to rule on any dispute you may have with that contract.

Understanding jurisdictional requirements is key to winning any legal proceeding. The potential consequences of choosing the wrong court for your lawsuit will be expensive and consulting with an attorney is strongly recommended. A good litigation attorney can review the facts of your case, help you choose the proper jurisdiction and help you file the proper paperwork in the correct court of law.

Besides the above, there are many other jurisdictional considerations to be aware of. We will touch on a few here and expand on them and add more in future articles.

  • Appellate Jurisdiction – An appellate court hears only appeals regarding a lower court’s rulings.
  • Concurrent Jurisdiction – When two different courts share the same jurisdictional power.
  • Discretionary jurisdiction – A court that can choose which appealed cases to hear based on the importance of the subject matter, is said to have discretionary jurisdiction.
  • Diversity Jurisdiction – The ability of Federal courts to hear cases of parties from different states is considered diversity jurisdiction.
  • Exclusive Jurisdiction – The power of the Supreme Court can be understood as exclusive jurisdiction.
  • Federal Question Jurisdiction – Hearing a variety of cases and cases with a monetary amount in question of over $75,000.
  • General Jurisdiction – A trial court empowered to hear all cases not specifically reserved for special jurisdiction.
  • Indian tribal jurisdiction – Indian land is considered a sovereign nation and the tribes have the sovereign authority and jurisdictional power over their territory. That said over the years tribal jurisdiction has been adjusted and litigation jurisdiction can be held by Federal, State and Indian tribal courts, each taking part in certain areas of law. Tribal courts maintain concurrent jurisdiction in many areas of law. Some examples of tribal law within Indian country would be the Federal Criminal Jurisdiction Act, Indian Country Tribal law, Federal Enclaves Act, Assimilative Crimes Act, Major Crimes Act, and the Indian Civil Rights Act to name only a few.
  • MultiDistrict litigation– This statute allows one federal court multidistrict litigation (MDL) or  jurisdiction to hear similar civil cases that would normally be filed throughout multiple federal court districts, and effectively consolidating the cases.
  • Original jurisdiction – The court that originally hears a case when filed by a plaintiff has original jurisdiction.
  • Special Jurisdiction – A court with special jurisdiction can only hear certain types of cases.
  • Supplemental Jurisdiction – Allows federal courts to consider additional claims related to an original claim even if the court would lack the subject matter jurisdiction over that claim on its own. Supplemental jurisdiction is sometimes called ancillary jurisdiction or pendent jurisdiction.
  • Universal Jurisdiction – A controversial subject of international law, stating that any country can prosecute any other country or its citizens for extreme crimes against humanity.

In summary

With litigation jurisdiction having so many different applications in so many different settings you can see why it would always be important to contact an attorney before any legal action is taken. In the long run, you can win a case and have it thrown out for using the improper court to file the case, wasting a lot of time and effort. Even if you are justified in filing your case, if the litigation jurisdiction is wrong, your case may be overturned and thrown out.