Subject Matter Jurisdiction Definition

The power of a court to hear and decide a particular type of case or matter. Typically, subject matter jurisdiction derives from a federal or state constitution, and the specific parameters of a court's subject matter jurisdiction are defined by the federal or state legislature.

State Courts

State court subject matter jurisdiction includes the civil and criminal laws enacted by a court's own state. State courts can also hear some cases that arise under federal law, unless Congress has reserved exclusive subject matter jurisdiction to the federal courts. For example, patent disputes and federal immigration violations can be heard only in federal courts.

State laws often limit the subject matter jurisdiction of certain state courts. Small claims courts are a good example. They have subject matter jurisdiction only when a relatively low amount of money is in dispute—usually in the range of $2,000 to $10,000.

Federal Courts

Federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over civil and criminal laws enacted by Congress. Federal courts can also hear cases involving state laws in some circumstances. For instance, if a state law is challenged on the ground that it violates the U.S. Constitution, a federal court can decide that case. If parties from different states have a case that involves state law, a federal court can hear the case if the amount in dispute is more than $75,000.

Parties can't consent to subject matter jurisdiction. If subject matter jurisdiction doesn't exist, a court has no choice but to dismiss the case.

(See also jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction)