Skip to main content


The authority granted to a legal body to interpret, declare, or enforce the law. Jurisdiction determines which court system should properly judge a case or which law enforcement agency has the power of arrest in a certain area.

Federal level: 
U.S. District Courts have original jurisdiction in all federal criminal and civil cases, meaning they must be heard first in these courts. Criminal cases are brought when violations of the U.S. Penal Code (crimes defined by Congress) are involved, such as interstate auto theft or importation of illegal drugs. In civil cases, a federal question must be raised. For example: claims of civil rights violations, maritime disputes, patent and copyright claims.
The U.S. Court of Appeals has no original jurisdiction. It hears civil and criminal appeals from the District Courts and appeals from certain federal agencies and departments. The court is divided into 13 circuits, encompassing groups of states. For example: The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals covers Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands.
The U.S. Supreme Court is generally an appellate court, but it also has original jurisdiction over some cases, such as disputes between states. Appeals reach the court from lower federal courts or from a state’s highest court when a substantial federal question is in dispute. 

State level: The jurisdiction of individual state courts varies from state to state. Following is an overview of state court systems.

Trial courts of limited jurisdiction deal only with minor cases such as misdemeanors and infractions. In criminal cases, they can impose only limited fines (usually capped at $1,000) and limited sentences (usually one-year maximum). In civil lawsuits, they are limited to small amounts, such as less than $500. Some common names of these types of courts are justice of the peace courts, traffic courts, municipal courts and domestic relations courts. Judges are often not required to have legal training. Appeals of cases from these courts go to a trial court of general jurisdiction for a new trial.
Trial courts of general jurisdiction handle the more serious criminal and civil cases in most states. Often known as circuit, district or superior courts, they generally cover areas defined by political boundaries such as a county or group of counties. When they hear appeals in certain cases from a court of limited jurisdiction, a new trial is held. Judges are required to have a law degree.
Intermediate appellate courts help ease the case burden for a state’s highest court. Most states have one of these courts, with statewide jurisdiction. They are often called courts of appeals, and the number of judges on the bench varies from state to state.
Court of last resort is a state’s highest court. Every state has one, and most states call them supreme courts. The number of judges on the bench varies. The courts have jurisdiction over cases relating to state law. With states that have intermediate appellate courts, the court of last resort will choose which cases to review. Otherwise, it receives appeals directly for mandatory review.