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An important and early determination to be made in each pending action is whether to file a civil lawsuit in the “forum” of a federal court or state court. A court’s general authority to hear and/or “adjudicate” a legal matter is referred to as its “jurisdiction.” In the United States, jurisdiction is granted to a court or court system by statute or by constitution. A legal decision made by a court that does not have proper jurisdiction is deemed void and non-binding upon the litigants.

Jurisdiction may be referred to as “exclusive,” “original,” concurrent, general, or limited. Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution limits the types of cases that federal courts may hear. Generally speaking, federal courts may hear only those cases involving federal laws, federal or sovereign parties (including states), or disputes between citizens from different states. Thus, federal courts have “limited” jurisdiction, which may be “exclusive” over a matter or party (to the exclusion of any other forum), or may be “concurrent” and shared with state courts. In matters where both federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction, state courts may hear federal law claims (e.g., violations of civil rights), and parties bringing suit may choose the forum. However, when a plaintiff raises both state and federal claims in a state court, the defendant may be able to “remove” the case to a federal court.

Inside Jurisdiction