5.2. Jurisdiction

Lore Rutz-Burri

In order to understand the courts, it is essential to understand the many facets of the word jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the legal authority to hear and decide a case (legal suit), and it might depend on the stage of the case (or function of the court), the subject of the case, the seriousness of the case, the persons involved in the case – or, simple geography. Each of the boxes below illustrates a different kind of jurisdiction.

Jurisdiction Based on the Function of the Court

Trial Courts versus Appellate Courts

Jurisdiction may be based on the function of the court, such as the difference between trial and appellate functions. The federal and state court systems each have court hierarchies that divide trial courts and appellate courts. Trial courts have jurisdiction over pretrial matters, trials, sentencing, probation, and parole violations. Trial courts deal with facts. Did the defendant stab the victim? Was the eyewitness able to clearly see the stabbing? Did the probationer willfully violate terms of probation? As a result, trial courts determine guilt and impose punishments.

Appellate courts, on the other hand, review the decisions of the trial courts. They are primarily concerned with matters of law. Did the trial judge properly instruct the jury about the controlling law? Did the trial court properly suppress evidence in a pretrial hearing? Does the applicable statute allow the defendant to raise a particular affirmative defense? Appellate courts correct legal errors made by trial courts and develop law when new legal questions arise. Appellate courts do not hold hearings in which evidence is developed, but rather they only review the record, or “transcript”, of the trial court. In some instances, appellate courts determine if there is legally sufficient, or enough, evidence to uphold a conviction.

Jurisdiction Based on Subject Matter

Jurisdiction can also be based on the subject matter of the case. For example, criminal courts handle criminal matters, tax courts handle tax matters, and customs and patent courts handle patent matters. Regarding “subject matter jurisdiction” Kerper (1979, 34) noted,

“The [subject matter] jurisdictional distinction . . . tends to be utilized primarily in distinguishing between different trial courts.  Appellate courts ordinarily can hear all types of cases, although there are several states that have separate appellate courts for criminal and civil appeals. At the trial level, most states have established one or more specialized courts to deal with particular legal fields. The most common areas delegated to specialized courts are wills and estates (assigned to courts commonly known as probate . . . courts), divorce, adoption or other aspects of family law (family or domestic relations courts), and actions based on the English law of equity (chancery courts). The federal system also includes specialized courts for such areas as customs and patents. While significant, the specialized courts represent only a small portion of all trial courts. Most trial courts are not limited to a particular subject but may deal with all fields.  Such trial courts are commonly described as having general jurisdiction since they cover the general (i.e., non-specialized) areas of law. Criminal cases traditionally are assigned to courts with general jurisdiction.” [1]

Jurisdiction Based on the Seriousness of the Case

The jurisdiction of trial courts may also be based on the seriousness of the case. For example, some courts, called courts of limited jurisdiction only have authority to try infractions, violations, and petty crimes (misdemeanors) whereas other trial courts, called courts of general jurisdiction, have authority to try serious crimes (felonies) as well as minor crimes and offenses.

 Jurisdiction Based on the Court’s Authority over the Parties to the Case

Jurisdiction also refers to the court’s authority over the parties in the case. For example, juvenile courts have jurisdiction over dependency and delinquency cases involving youth. Other courts have jurisdiction that is based on the special nature of the parties are the military tribunals, including courts-martial, Courts of Criminal Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Services.

Jurisdiction based on State and Federal Autonomy (Geography) 

Finally, jurisdiction is also tied to our system of federalism, the autonomy of both national and state governments. State courts have jurisdiction over state matters, and federal courts have jurisdiction over federal matters.  Jurisdiction is most commonly known to represent geographic locations of the court’s oversight. For example, Pennsylvania courts do not have jurisdiction over crimes in Ohio.


  1. Kerper, H. B. (1979). Introduction to the criminal justice system (2nd ed.). West Publishing Company.


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