California Courts: What is Subject Matter Jurisdiction?

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Subject matter jurisdiction sounds more complicated than it is. It stems from the fact that in the court system, not every court is allowed to hear every case. Some courts are specialized and can only hear one type of case. For example, federal bankruptcy courts can only hear and decide bankruptcy matters and lack subject matter jurisdiction to hear a California divorce case. The law uses the term jurisdiction to describe the types of cases a court has authority to hear.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction in the Law

Subject matter jurisdiction is a way that Congress and state legislators organize the federal and state court systems. Under the doctrine of federalism, Congress can determine what cases can be brought in the federal court system, what types of cases must be brought in the federal courts, and which federal courts hear what types of cases. California lawmakers also have the right to limit subject matter jurisdiction, but most state courts can hear almost any matter.

This type of organizing courts as to which court can hear what cases underlies the concept of jurisdiction. The general rule is that a court must have jurisdiction to enter a valid, enforceable judgment on a claim. Another way of saying this is that a court is authorized to rule only on particular types or cases about particular matters. Any judgment made by a court without proper jurisdiction can be challenged and dismissed.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction vs. Personal Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction has two separate aspects, both of which are important in determining whether a court can hear a particular action: personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction.

Personal jurisdiction involves who can be bound by a court decision. Usually that depends on whether a party has sufficient contacts with the area, or forum. For example, a California court does not have jurisdiction over a person who lives in Maine if that person has nothing whatsoever to do with California.

However, the court may have personal jurisdiction over her if she visits California and has a car accident there. Usually a party can elect to waive personal jurisdiction by agreeing to participate in a case in a court that otherwise does not have personal jurisdiction over them.

Subject matter jurisdiction involves the kind of case a particular court can hear. It cannot be waived by the parties. The idea behind subject matter jurisdiction is that different courts are charged with hearing different types of cases and cannot adjudicate other types of cases.

One important example is the federal court/state court distinction. A California resident, or the spouse of a California resident, can file bankruptcy in federal court, but they cannot bring a divorce action there since the court would not have subject matter jurisdiction to rule on bankruptcy issues.

Read More: When Does the Supreme Court Have Original Jurisdiction?

General vs. Limited Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Under the subject matter jurisdiction rule, a court can only hear and decide claims that it is authorized to hear under the law. Since court powers are largely determined by state legislatures or by Congress, those lawmaking bodies can give a particular court general or limited subject matter jurisdiction.

For example, Congress created the United States Tax Court specifically to hear cases related to taxation. The United States Bankruptcy Court's purpose is to hear and decide bankruptcy cases. These are courts of limited subject matter jurisdiction and do not have subject matter jurisdiction over any other matters. If a party tries to file a divorce case in bankruptcy court, it will be tossed out for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

In contrast, most California courts are courts of general jurisdiction. The state maintains specialized courts of limited subject matter jurisdiction to hear particular cases, like small claims courts that hear cases with lower damage amounts and probate courts that hear only probate cases. However, its trial courts, called superior courts, have authority to hear and decide almost any claim arising under state or federal laws, other than those falling under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal courts.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction: Federal Question

There are both state and federal courts in California. Sometimes both courts will have subject matter jurisdiction over a particular case, while in others, the federal court is said to have exclusive jurisdiction.

What are the rules about subject matter jurisdiction in federal court? To a large extent, Congress determines the limited subject matter jurisdiction of federal courts in the law. Only cases falling within that subject matter jurisdiction can be brought in a federal court.

There are two main sources of subject matter jurisdiction in federal courts: diversity jurisdiction and federal question jurisdiction.

Diversity jurisdiction means that people who live in two different states can sue each other in federal court if the amount at stake is over $75,000. For example, under this type of jurisdiction a resident of California can sue a resident of another state in a federal court for any claims exceeding $75,000.

Under federal question jurisdiction, anyone can bring a claim of any amount in federal court if it arises under federal law, including the U.S. Constitution. Those suing in federal court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction must include the specifics of the federal element on the face of their pleadings. The statutes also give the federal court supplemental subject matter jurisdiction over claims that are related to a pending federal case even if there is no independent federal jurisdiction over them.

Jurisdiction of Federal Court on Certain Issues

In some cases, state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction, meaning that a person can bring a case in either court. In other situations, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over certain subject matter.

Congress gives federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over issues with which the federal government is particularly concerned. In these cases, exclusive federal subject matter jurisdiction guarantees that a uniform body of federal law will develop, setting standards in complex legal areas. For example, federal courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction in issues like patent law, antitrust, bankruptcy and copyright.

Federal courts also have exclusive jurisdiction over some types of cases under the U.S Constitution. These include cases involving ambassadors and consuls, as well as admiralty and maritime cases.

Navigating the California Court System

The trial courts in California are called superior courts and they are all courts of general jurisdiction. However, the judicial system organizes superior courts into areas of specialized subject matter jurisdiction. In order to navigate your way through the California court system, it helps to have an organizational overview.

The basic division of types of cases in California courts is between civil and criminal. Criminal cases are those brought by the state of California against a person who is charged with violating a criminal statute. A private individual cannot charge someone with a crime in criminal court; only a district attorney or state prosecutor can do this.

Civil cases are all other cases, including the vast majority of lawsuits in California. There are lots of different types of cases brought in civil court, anything from contract disputes to auto accident damage cases. To organize these cases, the judicial system has developed specialized parts of the court system by subject area. They include:

  • Family law cases including divorce, child custody and support, paternity and emancipation.
  • Juvenile cases including child abuse and cases where a minor has broken the law.
  • Landlord/tenant cases including wrongful detainer actions and violations of rental or lease agreements.
  • Probate cases including wills and trusts when someone dies, and guardianship and conservatorship proceedings.

Getting your case heard in the correct California court in these instances is not a matter of subject matter jurisdiction, since all superior courts have general subject matter jurisdiction. It is simply an organizational matter of directing the case to the proper department within the overall state court system.

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