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Adjudicative Power: Subject Matter Jurisdiction

As we know from the materials in the immediately preceding chapter, personal jurisdiction is one of two constituent elements of judicial, or adjudicative, jurisdiction. In order to effectively exercise adjudicative authority, courts must have power over the parties to the legal proceeding. But, as the Supreme Court affirmed in Pennoyer, every tribunal also must be “competent by its constitution—that is, by the law of its creation—to pass upon the subject-matter of the suit.” Consequently, any systematic jurisdictional inquiry also must encompass an evaluation of whether the court has been empowered to adjudicate the particular type of dispute that has been placed before it.

The fact that all courts have been delegated—by the law of their creation—a circumscribed scope of subject matter jurisdiction accords with our intuition about the structure and functioning of our judicial system. We would not expect, for example, that someone seeking a divorce or custody over a minor child would be able to institute such a proceeding in the same court used by someone who is defending herself against the issuance of a speeding ticket or seeking to probate a will. Nor would we anticipate that the loser in either of these proceedings would appeal that decision to the same court in which it was tried. And in a federal system with separate federal and state sovereignties, there needs to be some framework for distributing cases between these two systems. For reasons relating to both efficiency and expertise, among others, federal courts have a strictly limited jurisdiction; state courts by and large are not similarly limited, although their jurisdiction is defined by state constitutions and statutes.

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