Yeazell, pp. 213-215: The Idea and the Structure of Subject Matter Jurisdiction


Personal jurisdiction is people!   That is, personal jurisdiction determines whether a court has the power to render a judgment against a particular defendant.


Subject matter jurisdiction is all about limiting the power of the federal government.  There are two big political compromises in the Constitution:


1.     Creating courts lower than the Supreme Court was left up to Congress.  This was done to mitigate the concerns of those who feared an overly powerful federal government.

2.     If a case doesn’t fall into one of the categories set out in § 2 of Article III, the federal courts can’t hear it.  However, Congress can choose what jurisdiction to give to the lower federal courts.


Therefore, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.  This leads to two questions:


1.     Is the case at hand listed in Article III § 2?

2.     Has Congress allowed the federal courts to hear such a case?


It’s important to note that federal courts share most of their jurisdiction with state courts.  This is called concurrent jurisdiction.  28 U.S.C. § 1331 says that federal courts will have original jurisdiction[1] over any case dealing with the Constitution, federal statutes, or U.S. treaties.


28 U.S.C. § 1332 says that diversity jurisdiction is also concurrent.  We definitely saw cases where people from different states went to state court.


There are also several areas of jurisdiction that Congress has given exclusively to the federal courts:


1.     Admiralty (boats) – 28 U.S.C. § 1333

2.     Bankruptcy – 28 U.S.C. § 1334

3.     Antitrust – 28 U.S.C. § 1337


Why might Congress grant exclusive jurisdiction to the federal courts over patents and copyrights but not over trademarks?  Maybe trademarks tend to be more local.  For example, you could have The Columbus Café™ suing The Café Columbus (not ™) in Ohio courts, and that’s fine because it’s a local dispute.  However, patents and copyrights are probably going to be used throughout the country and it’s important that there’s no bias towards a local litigant.


What are some reasons that an attorney or litigant might want a case either in federal or state court and not the other?


1.     Some federal courts have a “rocket docket”!

2.     A defendant may get more sympathy from a local judge than a big city federal judge.

3.     A federal jury, which is drawn from a different pool, may be more or less likely to award higher or lower damages.

4.     A federal judge may feel more secure in reducing a large jury award because he or she has lifetime tenure.

5.     A federal judge may be more likely to enforce an arbitration agreement.

6.     The opposing lawyer may be more comfortable in state court than federal court.


Federal judges are “shielded” in two ways:


1.     Lifetime tenure “insulates” them from political pressure.

2.     Limited jurisdiction “insulates” them from an overly broad caseload.


The take-home message is that it matters whether you’re in federal or state court, and that’s why subject matter jurisdiction is important.


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[1] I’m forgetting what this means right now, but I’m sure Fairman will set me straight.