Jurisdiction (from the Latin ius, iuris meaning "law" and dicere meaning "to speak") is the practical authority granted to a legal body to administer justice within a defined field of responsibility, e.g., Michigan tax law. In federations like the United States, areas of jurisdiction apply to local, state, and federal levels; e.g. the court has jurisdiction to apply federal law.
Colloquially it is used to refer to the geographical area to which such authority applies, e.g. the court has jurisdiction over all of Colorado. The legal term refers only to the granted authority, not to a geographical area.
Jurisdiction draws its substance from international law, conflict of laws, constitutional law, and the powers of the executive and legislative branches of government to allocate resources to best serve the needs of society.
International laws and treaties provide agreements which nations agree to be bound to.
Supranational organizations provide mechanisms whereby disputes between nations may be resolved through arbitration or mediation. When a country is recognized as de jure, it is an acknowledgment by the other de jure nations that the country has sovereignty and the right to exist.
However, it is often at the discretion of each nation whether to co-operate or participate. If a nation does agree to participate in activities of the supranational bodies and accept decisions, the nation is giving up its sovereign authority and thereby allocating power to these bodies.
Insofar as these bodies or nominated individuals may resolve disputes through judicial or quasi-judicial means, or promote treaty obligations in the nature of laws, the power ceded to these bodies cumulatively represents its own jurisdiction. But no matter how powerful each body may appear to be, the extent to which any of their judgments may be enforced, or proposed treaties and conventions may become, or remain, effective within the territorial boundaries of each nation is a political matter under the sovereign control each nation.
The fact that international organizations, courts and tribunals have been created raises the difficult question of how to co-ordinate their activities with those of national courts. If the two sets of bodies do not have concurrent jurisdiction but, as in the case of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the relationship is expressly based on the principle of complementarity, i.e., the international court is subsidiary or complementary to national courts, the difficulty is avoided. But if the jurisdiction claimed is concurrent, or as in the case of International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the international tribunal is to prevail over national courts, the problems are more difficult to resolve politically.
The idea of universal jurisdiction is fundamental to the operation of global organizations such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which jointly assert the benefit of maintaining legal entities with jurisdiction over a wide range of matters of significance to nations (the ICJ should not be confused with the ICC and this version of "universal jurisdiction" is not the same as that enacted in the War Crimes Law (Belgium) which is an assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction that will fail to gain implementation in any other state under the standard provisions of public policy). Under Article 34 Statute of the ICJ only nations may be parties in cases before the Court and, under Article 36, the jurisdiction comprises all cases which the parties refer to it and all matters specially provided for in the Charter of the United Nations or in treaties and conventions in force. But, to invoke the jurisdiction in any given case, all the parties have to accept the prospective judgment as binding. This reduces the risk of wasting the Court's time.
Despite the safeguards built into the constitutions of most of these organizations, courts and tribunals, the concept of universal jurisdiction is controversial among those nations which prefer unilateral to multilateral solutions through the use of executive or military authority, sometimes described as realpolitik-based diplomacy.
Within other international contexts, there are intergovernmental organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) that have socially and economically significant dispute resolution functions but, again, even though their jurisdiction may be invoked to hear the cases, the power to enforce their decisions is at the will of the nations affected, save that the WTO is permitted to allow retaliatory action by successful nations against those nations found to be in breach of international trade law. At a regional level, groups of nations can create political and legal bodies with sometimes complicated patchworks of overlapping provisions detailing the jurisdictional relationships between the member states and providing for some degree of harmonization between their national legislative and judicial functions, for example, the European Union and African Union both have the potential to become federated nations although the political barriers to such unification in the face of entrenched nationalism will be very difficult to overcome. Each such group may form transnational institutions with declared legislative or judicial powers. For example, in Europe, the European Court of Justice has been given jurisdiction as the ultimate appellate court to the member states on issues of European law. This jurisdiction is entrenched and its authority could only be denied by a member nation if that member nation asserts its sovereignty and withdraws from the union.
The standard treaties and conventions leave the issue of implementation to each nation, i.e. there is no general rule in international law that treaties have direct effect in municipal law, but some nations, by virtue of their membership of supranational bodies, allow the direct incorporation of rights or enact legislation to honor their international commitments. Hence, citizens in those nations can invoke the jurisdiction of local courts to enforce rights granted under international law wherever there is incorporation. If there is no direct effect or legislation, there are two theories to justify the courts incorporating international into municipal law:
In the United States, the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution makes all treaties that have been ratified under the authority of the United States and customary international law a part of the "Supreme Law of the Land" (along with the Constitution itself and acts of Congress passed pursuant to it) (U.S. Const.art. VI Cl. 2) and, as such, the law of the land is binding on the federal government as well as on state and local governments. According to the Supreme Court of the United States, the treaty power authorizes Congress to legislate under the Necessary and Proper Clause in areas beyond those specifically conferred on Congress (Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920)).
This concerns the relationships both between courts in different jurisdictions, and between courts within the same jurisdiction. The usual legal doctrine under which questions of jurisdiction are decided is termed forum non conveniens.
To deal with the issue of forum shopping, nations are urged to adopt more positive rules on conflict of laws. The Hague Conference and other international bodies have made recommendations on jurisdictional matters, but litigants with the encouragement of lawyers on a contingent fee continue to shop for forums.
At a supranational level, countries have adopted a range of treaty and convention obligations to relate the right of individual litigants to invoke the jurisdiction of national courts and to enforce the judgments obtained. For example, the member nations of the EEC signed the Brussels Convention in 1968 and, subject to amendments as new nations joined, it represents the default law for all twenty-seven Member States of what is now termed the European Union on the relationships between the courts in the different countries. In addition, the Lugano Convention (1988) binds the European Union and the European Free Trade Association.
In effect from 1 March 2002, all the member states of the EU except Denmark accepted Council Regulation (EC) 44/2001, which makes major changes to the Brussels Convention and is directly effective in the member nations. Council Regulation (EC) 44/2001 now also applies as between the rest of the EU Member States and Denmark due to an agreement reached between the European Community and Denmark. In some legal areas, at least, the CACA enforcement of foreign judgments is now more straightforward. At a national level, the traditional rules still determine jurisdiction over persons who are not domiciled or habitually resident in the European Union or the Lugano area.
Many nations are subdivided into states or provinces (i.e. a subnational "state"). In a federation — as can be found in Australia, Brazil, India, Mexico and the United States) — such subunits will exercise jurisdiction through the court systems as defined by the executives and legislatures.
When the jurisdictions of government entities overlap one another—for example between a state and the federation to which it belongs—their jurisdiction is a shared or concurrent jurisdiction.
Otherwise, one government entity will have exclusive jurisdiction over the shared area. When jurisdiction is concurrent, one government entity may have supreme jurisdiction over the other entity if their laws conflict. If the executive or legislative powers within the jurisdiction are not restricted, or have only limited restrictions, these government branches have plenary power such as a national policing power. Otherwise, an enabling act grants only limited or enumerated powers.
Child custody cases in the U.S. are a prime example of jurisdictional dilemmas caused by different states under a federal alignment. When parents and children are in different states, there is the possibility of different state court orders over-ruling each other. The U.S. solved this problem by adopting the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act. The act established criteria for determining which state has primary jurisdiction.
The primary distinctions between areas of jurisdiction are codified at a national level. As a common law system, jurisdiction is conceptually divided between jurisdiction over the subject matter of a case (called in rem) and jurisdiction over the person (called in personam). A court may use jurisdiction over property located within the perimeter of its powers without regard to personal jurisdiction over the litigants; this is an example of in rem jurisdiction.
A court whose subject matter jurisdiction is limited to certain types of controversies (for example, suits in admiralty or suits where the monetary amount sought is less than a specified sum, is sometimes referred to as a court of special jurisdiction or court of limited jurisdiction.
A court whose subject matter is not limited to certain types of controversy is referred to as a court of general jurisdiction. In the U.S. states, each state has courts of general jurisdiction; most states also have some courts of limited jurisdiction. Federal courts (those operated by the federal government) are courts of limited jurisdiction. Federal jurisdiction is divided into federal question jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction. The United States district courts may hear only cases arising under federal law and treaties, cases involving ambassadors, admiralty cases, controversies between states or between a state and citizens of another state, lawsuits involving citizens of different states, and against foreign states and citizens.
Certain courts, particularly the United States Supreme Court and most state supreme courts, have discretionary jurisdiction, meaning that they can choose which cases to hear from among all the cases presented on appeal. Such courts generally only choose to hear cases that would settle important and controversial points of law. Though these courts have discretion to deny cases they otherwise could adjudicate, no court has the discretion to hear a case that falls outside of its subject matter jurisdiction.
It is also necessary to distinguish between original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction. A court of original jurisdiction has the power to hear cases as they are first initiated by a plaintiff, while a court of appellate jurisdiction may only hear an action after the court of original jurisdiction (or a lower appellate court) has heard the matter. For example, in United States federal courts, the United States district courts have original jurisdiction over a number of different matters (as mentioned above), and the United States court of appeals have appellate jurisdiction over matters appealed from the district courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, in turn, has appellate jurisdiction (of a discretionary nature) over the Courts of Appeals, as well as the state supreme courts, by means of writ of certiorari.
However, in a special class of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to exercise original jurisdiction. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1251, the Supreme court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over controversies between two or more states, and original (but non-exclusive) jurisdiction over cases involving officials of foreign states, controversies between the federal government and a state, actions by a state against the citizens of another state or foreign country.
As a practical example of court jurisdiction, as of 2013 Utah has five types of courts, each for different legal matters and different physical territories. One-hundred-and-eight judges oversee Justice Courts, which handle traffic and parking citations, misdemeanor crimes, and most small claims cases. Seventy-one judges preside over District Courts, which deal with civil cases exceeding small claims limits, probate law, felony criminal cases, divorce and child custody cases, some small claims, and appeals from Justice Courts. Twenty-eight judges handle Juvenile Court, which oversees most people under 18 years old who are accused of a crime, as well as cases of alleged child abuse or neglect; serious crimes committed by 16 or 17 year old persons may be referred to the District Courts. Seven judges in the Appeals Court hear most criminal appeals from District Courts, all appeals from juvenile court and all domestic/divorce cases from District Court, as well as some cases transferred to them by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court seats five judges who hear appeals on first-degree felonies (the most serious) including capital crimes, as well as all civil cases from District Court (excepting divorce/domestic cases). The Supreme Court also oversees cases involving interpretation of the state Constitution, election matters, judicial conduct, and alleged misconduct by lawyers. This example shows how matters arising in the same physical territory might be seen in different courts. A minor traffic infraction originating in Orem, Utah is handled by the Orem Justice Court. However, a second-degree felony arrest and a first-degree felony arrest in Orem would be under the jurisdiction of the District Court in Provo, Utah. If both the minor traffic offense and the felony arrests resulted in guilty verdicts, the traffic conviction could be appealed to the District Court in Provo, while the second-degree felony appeal would be heard by the Appeals Court in Salt Lake City and the first-degree felony appeal would be heard by the Supreme Court. Similarly for civil matters, a small claims case arising in Orem would probably be heard in the Orem Justice Court, while a divorce filed by an Orem resident would be heard by the District Court in Provo. The above examples apply only to cases of Utah state law; any case under Federal jurisdiction would be handled by a different court system. All Federal cases arising in Utah are under the jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the District of Utah, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and would be heard in one of three Federal courthouses.
In the history of English common law, a jurisdiction could be held as a form of property (or more precisely an incorporeal hereditament) called a franchise. Traditional franchise jurisdictions of various powers were held by municipal corporations, religious houses, guilds, early universities, Welsh Marches, and Counties Palatine. Types of franchise courts included Courts Baron, Courts Leet, merchant courts, and the Stannary Courts which dealt with disputes involving the tin miners of Cornwall. The original royal charters of the American colonies included broad grants of franchise jurisdiction along with other governmental powers to corporations or individuals, as did the charters for many other colonial companies such as the British East India Company and British South Africa Company. Analogous jurisdiction existed in medieval times on the European Continent. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, franchise jurisdictions were largely eliminated. Several formerly important franchise courts were not officially abolished until Courts Act of 1971.