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Jurisdiction: Personal & Subject Matter

Jurisdiction is an issue really only attorneys, judges, and legislators seem to think about, even though it is of tremendous importance. What is it?

Missouri Courts recognize two types of jurisdiction: (1) subject matter jurisdiction and (2) personal jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction is reasonably straightforward. It refers to a category of cases a particular court is authorized to hear. It’s a court’s power to render a judgment in a type of case. Article V of the Missouri Constitution articulates the subject matter jurisdiction of Missouri’s circuit courts: “circuit courts shall have original jurisdiction over all cases and matters, civil and  criminal. Such courts may issue and determine original remedial writs and shall sit at  times and places within the circuit as determined by the circuit court.” Federal jurisdiction, on the other hand, is limited. Ordinarily, one reached federal court by either filing a complaint with claims that arise under federal law or by demonstrating that diversity jurisdiction between the parties exists. 

Personal jurisdiction is a different concept. Unlike a category of cases, it refers to a court’s power to require a person to respond to legal proceedings and enter a judgment or orders against that person.  Would it be fair if legal proceedings were instituted against you, a Missouri resident, in Montana by an Ohio resident for conduct that occurred in Missouri? Absent consent, this just is not permissible because the 14th Amendment of the U.S. constitution’s due process clause requires that there be some minimum contacts with the forum and that the exercise of jurisdiction comport with our traditional understanding of fair play and  justice.

Personal jurisdiction is, by most estimations, a more difficult concept to grasp than subject matter jurisdiction — largely because it is an abstract concept. It is one of the more difficult byproducts of our two-tiered, federalist system of government, and its application can cause reasonable minds to disagree about results.

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