Introduction to Subject Matter Jurisdiction | I. Glenn Cohen | August 16, 2013


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Introduction to Subject Matter Jurisdiction


Subject matter jurisdiction concerns the court’s power to hear a case based on the nature of the controversy at issue. Both state and federal courts have limited subject matter jurisdiction. In the federal system, Article III of the Constitution, federal statutes and judicial decisions all govern subject matter jurisdiction (SMJ).


Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and they have only the jurisdiction granted to them by Constitution and Congress. Article III, §§ 1 and 2 of U.S. Constitution is source for subject matter jurisdiction.  

  • Article III §§ 2: “The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made under their authority; to all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls; to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; to controversies to which the United States shall be a party; to controversies between two or more states, between a state and Citizens of another state, between Citizens of different states, between Citizens of the same state, claiming lands under grants of different states, and between a state, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign states, Citizens or subjects.” (This last section is modified by Amendment XI)

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over only those cases “affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be a party.” (Art. III, §§2.2).


Two types of jurisdiction are important for our purposes: federal question (the “arising under” clause) and diversity of citizenship (“between citizens of different states”).

The Constitution does not itself authorize SMJ for federal courts, it merely spells out the outer limits of what Congress can grant. It is up to Congress to specify what kind of SMJ it wants the federal courts to have. Congress can give less than the constitutional limit but it cannot give more.

For some areas of law, such as patent law, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction. For many other claims, state and federal courts have overlapping jurisdiction and plaintiffs can choose in which court to bring a claim. Removal jurisdiction allows the defendant, in certain cases, the right to ‘remove’ the case from state to federal court. Subject matter jurisdiction may be limited by the nature of the conflict or by the amount at issue in the claim.

As we explore the requirements of subject matter jurisdiciton, keep in mind whether opportunities to ‘forum shop’ empower litigants or create additional problems of public concern.



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September 11, 2013

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