Jurisdiction is a magical and protean term. In American law it refers to the power of legislatures, the competence of courts to deal with certain types of cases, the allocation of cases between state and federal courts, the power of both state and federal courts over defendants who have only peripheral attachments to the locale of the court, and the territory in which a unit of government exercises its power. Not surprisingly the word shifts its meanings as it moves among these quite different tasks.
The term's confusing spread of meanings has its roots in the English medieval experience. What modern observers would think of as political power accompanied the grant of property; the landlord was lord of more than land; he exercised powers of justice over the people who tilled that soil. Yet that jurisdiction also had limits: above it stood the powers of the monarch, who at least in theory had the power and responsibility to see that the lords rendered justice. Thus the word emerged from the Middle Ages carrying several meanings: the power to make law, the power to adjudicate cases, and, loosely, the territory within which that power was exercised.
We use all three senses today. We speak, for example, of legislative jurisdiction, meaning legislative power, generally allocated by state and federal constitutions. Thus the earliest opinion of the Supreme Court applying the limits of SUBSTANTIVE DUE PROCESS to state economic regulation, in Allegeyer v. Louisiana (1897), said that the state had exceeded its territorial jurisdiction. Territorial considerations aside, any decision holding a law unconstitutional can be described as a holding that the legislative body has transgressed the limits of its jurisdiction?its lawful authority. The courts have employed this rhetoric especially in defining a state's jurisdiction to tax.
We use the extended, territorial sense of the term when we write of a fugitive's having fled a jurisdiction, or when lawyers ask about which jurisdiction's law applies. Article IV, section 3, of the Constitution uses the term in this sense when it prohibits creation of a new state within the jurisdiction of an existing state without the latter's consent.
The most distinctively legal, though not exclusively constitutional, sense of the term refers to the authority of a court to decide a matter or to issue an order?its subject matter jurisdiction. Some state courts are courts of so-called general...