Courts can only hear cases over which they have jurisdiction. For example, a family court could hear a divorce case, but not a breach of contract case. A surrogate’s court in New York can probate a will, but it cannot award damages in a personal injury case. Today’s Long Island employment law blog discusses the jurisdiction of federal courts and a recent appeal’s court decision relating to jurisdiction.
A court’s jurisdiction is generally considered either general or specific. In New York, the Supreme Court (which is actually the lowest level court) is generally a court of general jurisdiction. This means Supreme Courts can hear nearly any type of case. For purposes of efficiency however, the state created other courts of specific jurisdiction. As noted above, family courts, surrogate’s courts, and small claims courts were created to hear specific types of cases so that the Supreme Court can hear other matters without its docket being clogged.
Federal courts are, by the very nature of the Constitution, courts of limited jurisdiction. Since the federal government only has the power to regulate those areas granted by the Constitution and all other areas of regulation and lawmaking are reserved to the states, federal courts cannot hear all types of cases. Generally, federal courts can hear cases in one of two ways, either by diversity jurisdiction or federal question jurisdiction. Diversity jurisdiction exists when the parties live in different states. For example, if Jim lives in New York and Joe lives in New Jersey and Jim was injured in a car accident with Joe, Jim could sue Joe in a federal court. But, if Jim and Joe both live in New York, Jim would have to sue Joe in a New York State Supreme Court.