United States district court | jurisdiction


Unlike some state courts, the power of federal courts to hear cases and controversies is strictly limited. Federal courts may not decide every case that happens to come before them. In order for a district court to entertain a lawsuit, Congress must first grant the court subject matter jurisdiction over the type of dispute in question.

The district courts exercise original jurisdiction over—that is, they are empowered to conduct trials in—the following types of cases:

  • Civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States;[8]
  • Certain civil actions between citizens of different states;[9]
  • Civil actions within the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction of the United States;[10]
  • Criminal prosecutions brought by the United States;[11]
  • Civil actions in which the United States is a party;[12] and
  • Many other types of cases and controversies[13]

For most of these cases, the jurisdiction of the federal district courts is concurrent with that of the state courts. In other words, a plaintiff can choose to bring these cases in either a federal district court or a state court. Congress has established a procedure whereby a party, typically the defendant, can "remove" a case from state court to federal court, provided that the federal court also has original jurisdiction over the matter (meaning that the case could have been filed in federal court initially).[14] If the party that initially filed the case in state court believes that removal was improper, that party can ask the district court to "remand" the case to the state court system. For certain matters, such as patent and copyright infringement disputes and prosecutions for federal crimes, the jurisdiction of the district courts is exclusive of that of the state courts, meaning that only federal courts can hear those cases.[note 2]

In addition to their original jurisdiction, the district courts have appellate jurisdiction over a very limited class of judgments, orders, and decrees.[15]

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