Federal jurisdiction

The American legal system includes both state courts and federal courts. Generally, state courts hear cases involving state law, although they may also hear cases involving federal law so long as the federal law in question does not grant exclusive jurisdiction to federal courts. Federal courts may only hear cases where federal jurisdiction can be established. Specifically, the court must have both subject-matter jurisdiction over the matter of the claim and personal jurisdiction over the parties.

Key concepts in general federal law in the USA (other countries using a federal system differ), at all court levels, include standing and the Case or Controversy Requirement. These apply as strongly to constitutional cases as to any others, and often a seemingly "civil rights" related issue is rejected by the courts for these reasons. They flow from Article III, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. Standing means that a person raising a constitutional issue must be someone who, if his or her assertion is correct, will personally suffer an infringement of his or her rights if the court does not intervene. This means that, except in unusual circumstances (see third-party standing or class action), one cannot sue on behalf of another. The Case or Controversy requirement means that there must be at least two adversarial parties and an actual dispute between them. The effect is that federal courts in the United States will not issue advisory opinions or rule on hypothetical issues. (But see: Declaratory judgment).

To these two concepts, constitutional law adds the state action requirement. Simply put, a private citizen cannot violate another private citizen's constitutional rights. A case does not become a constitutional issue unless one party can show that a local, state, or federal government agency, officer or official was involved. For example, if a private citizen invades another citizen's house, the first citizen is liable to the second one in a lawsuit for trespass; on the other hand, if a police officer invades a citizen's home without a valid warrant or probable cause, the police agency or the officer can be found liable for violating the citizen's constitutional rights. (State and municipal officers are exposed to liability by usc|42|1983; cause of action against federal officers is due primarily to Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388.)

The first example is merely a violation of the legal right to privacy; the second is a violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. (Note here: Some cases which the Supreme Court of the United States accepts and decides involve constitutional rights; others involve the interpretation of legal rights.)

The Supreme Court has "cautioned that ... Court [s] must take great care to 'resist the temptation' to express preferences about [certain types of cases] in the form of jurisdictional rules. Judges must strain to remove the influence of the merits from their jurisdictional rules. The law of jurisdiction must remain apart from the world upon which it operates." A. Althouse, "Standing, in Fluffy Slippers", 77 Va. L. Rev 1177, 1189 (1991) (characterizing the Supreme Court's decision in "Whitmore v. Arkansas", [http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=495&invol=149 495 U.S. 149] (1990)).

Generally, when a case has successfully overcome the hurdles of Standing, Case or Controversy and State Action, it will be heard by a trial court. The non-governmental party may raise claims or defenses relating to alleged constitutional violation(s) by the government. If the non-governmental party loses, the constitutional issue may form part of the appeal. Eventually, a petition for certiorarimay be sent to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court grants certiorari and accepts the case, it will receive written briefs from each side (and any amici curiae or friends of the court--usually interested third parties with some expertise to bear on the subject) and schedule oral arguments. The justices will closely question both parties. When the Court renders its decision, it will generally do so in a single majority opinion and one or more dissenting opinions. Each opinion sets forth the facts, prior decisions, and legal reasoning behind the position taken. The majority opinion constitutes binding precedent on all lower courts; when faced with very similar facts, they are bound to apply the same reasoning or face reversal of their decision by a higher court.

Legislative jurisdiction

In U.S. law, another aspect of federal jurisdiction is the extent of federal legislative power. Under the Constitution, Congress has power to legislate only in the areas that are delegated to it. Under clause 17 of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, however, Congress has power to "exercise exclusive Legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the federal district and other territory ceded to the federal government by the states, such as for military installations. Federal jurisdiction is said to exist over such territory.

Federal jurisdiction in this sense is important in criminal law because federal law, being based on a concept of enumerated powers, does not deal with crimes as comprehensively as the laws of any state. To fill in any potential gaps, Congress has enacted the Assimilative Crimes Act (UnitedStatesCode|18|13), which provides that any act that would have been a crime under the laws of the state in which a federal enclave is situated is also a federal crime. In U.S. military law, it is often vitally important to establish whether the federal government had proprietary jurisdiction (only the rights of any other landowner), concurrent jurisdiction (the right to legislate concurrently with the state government), or exclusive jurisdiction over the land where an act was committed in order to establish court-martial jurisdiction over the actor.

ee also

* United States district court


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