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Federal jurisdiction (United States)

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Federal jurisdiction refers to the legal scope of the government's powers in the United States of America.

The United States is a federal republic, governed by the U.S. Constitution, containing fifty states and a federal district which elect the President and Vice President, and having other territories and possessions in its national jurisdiction. This government is variously known as the Union, the United States, or the federal government.

Under the Constitution and various treaties, the legal jurisdiction of the United States includes territories and territorial waters.[1]

Legislative Branch[edit]

One aspect of federal jurisdiction is the extent of legislative power. Under the Constitution, Congress has power to legislate only in the areas that are delegated to it. Under clause 17 Article I Section 8 of the Constitution however, Congress has power to "exercise exclusive Legislation in all cases whatsoever" over the federal district (Washington, D.C.) and other territory ceded to the federal government by the states, such as for military installations.

Federal jurisdiction in this sense is important in criminal law because federal law does not supersede state criminal law. Congress has enacted the Assimilative Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. § 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. As most such enclaves are occupied by the military, military law is especially concerned with these enclaves, especially the issue of establishing who has jurisdiction and what type of jurisdiction. In such areas, the federal government may have proprietary jurisdiction (rights as landowner), concurrent jurisdiction (with federal and state law applicable), or exclusive jurisdiction over the land where an act was committed. Courts-martial involving military members subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice apply regardless of location.

Article Four of the United States Constitution also states that the Congress has the power to enact laws respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States. Federal jurisdiction exists over any territory thus subject to laws enacted by the Congress.

Judicial branch[edit]

U.S. Court of Appeals and District Court jurisdictions

The American legal system includes both state courts and federal courts. State courts hear cases involving state law, and such federal laws as are not restricted to hearing in 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.

The Federal Courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that they only exercise powers granted to them by the Constitution and Federal Laws. There are several forms of subject-matter jurisdiction, but the two most commonly appealed to are federal-question jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction. Federal question jurisdiction is available when the plaintiff raises a claim that arises under the laws, treaties, or Constitution of the United States, as opposed to claims arising under state law.[2] By the "Well-Pleaded Complaint" rule, federal question jurisdiction is not available if the federal issue arises only as a defense to a state-law claim.[3] Diversity jurisdiction, on the other hand, is available regarding state-law claims if every plaintiff is from a different state from every defendant (the requirement for so-called complete or total diversity) and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.[4]

If a Federal Court has subject matter jurisdiction over one or more of the claims in a case, it has discretion to exercise ancillary jurisdiction over other state law claims.

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".[5]

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 certiorari may 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.


  1. ^ Puerto Rico is a Territory of the United States Puerto Rico Report " The U.S. federal government has full responsibility for the conduct of foreign relations of all areas subject to United States jurisdiction, including all U.S. states, territories, and possessions. (Colin Powell), Gonzales v. Williams, 192 U.S. 1, 16 (1904). [Appellant, a Puerto Rican native and resident born before the signing of the Treaty of Paris who was traveling to New York] was not a passenger from a foreign port, and was a passenger “from territory or other place” subject to the jurisdiction of the United States., Nat. Bank v. Yankton County, 101 U.S. 129, 133 (1879). All territory within the jurisdiction of the United States not included in any State must necessarily be governed by or under the authority of Congress., Boumediene v. United States, 476 F.3d 981, 992 (D.C. Cir. 2007). [With regard to Guantanamo Bay,] Congress and the President have specifically disclaimed the sort of territorial jurisdiction they asserted in Puerto Rico [.], Congressional Research Service (CRS), Political Status of Puerto Rico: Options for Congress, Report Number RL32933, May 29, 2008, pp. 8 – 10 and 18. Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States, subject to congressional jurisdiction under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution., General Accounting Office, U.S. Insular Areas: Application of the U.S. Constitution, November 1997, Page 1. More than 4 million U.S. citizens and nationals live in insular areas [defined as “all territories over which the U.S. exercises sovereignty,” including Puerto Rico] under the jurisdiction of the United States. The Territorial Clause of the Constitution authorizes the Congress to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property” of the United States. Relying on the Territorial Clause, the Congress has enacted legislation making some provisions of the Constitution explicitly applicable in the insular areas., Whenever a bill comes up that relates to Puerto Rico, it is referred to the committee on Resources. Why? Because the Committee on Resources has jurisdiction over Indian and insular affairs, meaning territories. Meaning no matter what we may say about the Supreme Court decisions, no matter what we may say about U.N. resolutions, the proof is in the pudding. We are sitting here debating this. We would not be debating this if there was a bilateral pact. If Puerto Rico really had the say in this matter, they would have said, “Hey, U.S. Congress, we don’t need you to give us the right to vote. We have the right to vote.” Puerto Rico could not do that because they are under the Territorial Clause of the United States Constitution, like it or not.
  2. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 1331
  3. ^ See Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149(1908).
  4. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 1332.
  5. ^ A. Althouse, Standing, in Fluffy Slippers, 77 Va. L. Rev 1177, 1189 (1991) (characterizing the Supreme Court's decision in Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149 (1990).

See also[edit]