The Jurisdiction of a State Court

Jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear and decide a case. The power of a state court to hear a particular case comes from the constitution and laws of that state. For a court’s decision to be legally binding, the court must have both subject matter jurisdiction (authority to hear a case involving the type of legal matter at issue, such as a contract or a personal injury) and personal jurisdiction (authority over the parties to the suit).

Subject Matter Jurisdiction

State courts generally have authority to hear cases involving transactions that happened within the state or the particular geographical area, such as a county, in which the court is located. However, there are a few types of cases over which the federal courts have sole or exclusive jurisdiction. These include bankruptcy and admiralty cases. 

The subject matter jurisdiction of a state court is usually widespread and includes everything from real estate questions to state tax disputes. Most states have special courts or divisions within a court set up to hear a specific type of case. Housing courts, family courts, and probate courts are examples of special state courts. If there is a county probate court, for example, that court would have power to hear all cases involving probate matters, such as contested wills, within the county.

Personal Jurisdiction

A court must have personal jurisdiction over the individuals and companies involved in a lawsuit for a decision to be legally binding on the parties to the suit. Generally, if an individual lives within a state, the state courts will have power to decide a lawsuit involving that individual. The same is true for a company. If the company is located within the state or does business within the state, a state court will have power to decide a lawsuit involving that company. Even if a company is not located within the state, a state court might still have jurisdiction over the company if the company sent mail order catalogs into the state or has other “minimum contacts” with the state. All states have laws allowing a suit against an individual who does not live in a state but who caused a traffic accident while driving through the state.

Service of Process

Personal jurisdiction over an individual or a company is obtained by service of process, which means giving notice of the lawsuit to the individual or the company. Notice of a lawsuit may be given in several ways, depending on what state statutes provide. For example, proper service may include serving the individual or a company officer with a notice in person, by mailing a notice to the individual or company, or by publishing a notice in the newspaper.