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Jurisdiction is "[a] geographical, political, or system boundary as defined by each individual State."[1]


Jurisdiction is a range or sphere of authority. Public agencies have jurisdiction at an incident related to their legal responsibilities and authority. Jurisdictional authority at an incident can be political or geographic (e.g., city, county, territorial, tribal, State, or Federal boundary lines) or functional (e.g., law enforcement, public health).


Jurisdiction is the power of a court to exercise control over a defendant. Jurisdiction can either be personal jurisdiction (control over a person or property) or subject matter jurisdiction (control over the issue of the case)

Subject matter jurisdiction[]

A court can exercise subject matter jurisdiction either because the case involves a federal question or because there is diversity of citizenship between the parties in the case.[2] To qualify as a federal question the case must arise under an explicit federal right and remedy unless Congress has determined that there will be no private, federal cause of action for the issue. When there is a question about subject matter jurisdiction, the presumption is against its exercise. Additionally, the federal question must be pleaded in the complaint and not simply raised as a defense.

To determine citizenship:

  1. Natural Persons — physical presence in a state/state of residence; intent to return/remain indefinitely
  2. Corporations — state of incorporation; principal place of business
  3. Associations — where each member resides

In addition to complete diversity, the amount in controversy for the case must exceed $75,000.

Federal question jurisdiction[]

Federal question jurisdiction refers to the situation in which a U.S. federal court has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear a civil case because the plaintiff has alleged a violation of the U.S. Constitution, a federal law, or a treaty to which the United States is a party.

Article III of the United States Constitution permits federal courts to hear such cases, so long as the U.S. Congress passes a statute to that effect. 28 U.S.C. §1331 states that: "The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."

Unlike diversity jurisdiction, which is based on the parties coming from different states, federal question jurisdiction no longer has any amount in controversy requirement. Congress eliminated this requirement in actions against the United States in 1976, and in all federal question cases in 1980. Therefore, a federal court can hear a federal question case even if no money is sought by the plaintiff.

To meet the requirement of a case "arising under" federal law, the federal question must appear on the face of the plaintiff's complaint. There has been considerable dispute over what constitutes a "federal question" in these circumstances, but it is now settled law that the plaintiff cannot seek the jurisdiction of a federal court merely because it anticipates that the defendant is going to raise a defense based on the Constitution, or on a federal statute. This "well-pleaded complaint" rule has been criticized by legal scholars, but Congress has so far chosen not to change the law, although the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear it is free to do so.

Personal jurisdiction[]

To adjudicate a case against a defendant, a federal or state court must have personal jurisdiction (also called in personam jurisdiction) over the defendant. Whether a court has jurisdiction is defined by statute, but any such statute must be constitutional. The due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibits federal and state governments from denying a person "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

This requirement protects a company from being sued in a forum with which it has no meaningful "contacts, ties, or relations."[3] It also gives a company with contacts fair warning that its activities in a state may subject it to suit in that state,[4] and thereby allows it "to alleviate the risk of burdensome litigation by procuring insurance, passing the expected costs on to customers, or, if the risks are too great, severing its connection with the State."[5]

"Before a federal court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the procedural requirement of service of summons must be satisfied."[6] The plaintiff bears the burden of showing that proper service of process was completed."[7]

It is also the plaintiff's burden to prove the existence of personal jurisdiction.[8] The court will construe as true the facts advanced by the plaintiff to support jurisdiction.[9]

The extent to which electronic contacts, ties, or relations subject a firm to the personal jurisdiction of state and federal courts is an open question.

Under the traditional basis of personal jurisdiction, a court can has the power to bind a defendant to a judgment through physical presence, citizenship, consent, or waiver. Even if a defendant is a not a resident of the forum state they can be subject to jurisdiction and service of process while they are physically present within the territory or where they have property in the forum that is either the subject of the lawsuit or can be used to satisfy the judgment. The exercise of personal jurisdiction over a defendant must satisfy the requirements of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[10]

There are various bases for personal jurisdiction over a defendant, including:

  • In personam jurisdiction — if a defendant is in the forum (or the air space above it) for whatever reason, except a trick or fraud on the part of the parties seeking service, they can be served for suit.
  • In rem jurisdiction — in a true in rem proceeding the property being seized is the same as the subject of the lawsuit, in a quasi in rem proceeding the property is not the subject of the lawsuit but is being used to satisfy a judgment.
  • Quasi in rem jurisdiction — jurisdiction over the interest of a known person in property that is unrelated to the underlying claim.

Additional bases for personal jurisdiction include:

  • Citizenship — a citizen of the forum state is always subject to personal jurisdiction no matter where they are served.
  • Consent or waiver — on the basis of a forum selection clause in a contract a party may agree to be bound by the jurisdiction of a particular court. Such clauses will not be upheld if they are not vital to the contract, select a forum that is remote and alien to the parties and suit, or negotiated in bad faith.
  • Implied consent— Some states may implement and enforce regulations that are intended to promote care on the part of all, residents and non-residents alike, who use property within its borders.[11]

Minimum contacts[]

Under the modern basis of personal jurisdiction, a non-resident defendant is subject to jurisdiction in any state where a long-arm statute purports to reach them and they have minimum contacts. A long-arm statute purports to reach a defendant if either the state’s statute specifically names acts that subject a person to jurisdiction or if the state has a general language statute that extends jurisdiction to the limit allowed by the Constitution.

A defendant has minimum contacts with a forum state when it purposefully avail itself of the benefits and protections of that state. A non-resident must engage in some activity that is specifically directed towards the forum state. This activity must be intentional, substantial, confer a benefit, and give rise to the claim.

Under the minimum contacts test, "an essential criterion in all cases is whether the 'quality and nature' of the defendant's activity is such that it is 'reasonable' and 'fair' to require him to conduct his defense in that State."[12] "[T]he 'minimum contacts' test . . . is not susceptible of mechanical application; rather, the facts of each case must be weighed to determine whether the requisite 'affiliating circumstances' are present."[13]

The seminal modern case regarding constitutional limits on personal jurisdiction is International Shoe Co. v. Washington.[14] In International Shoe, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that “due process requires only that in order to subject a defendant to a judgment in personam, if he be not present within the territory of the forum, he have certain minimum contacts with it such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’”[15] The “fair play and substantial justice” component of the International Shoe standard is typically referred to addressing whether personal jurisdiction would be “reasonable” under the circumstances.

In Burger King v. Rudzewicz,[16] the Court recognized that the greater the showing of “reasonableness” the lesser the extent of “minimum contacts” with the forum that may be necessary to provide due process. In evaluating the reasonableness of personal jurisdiction, the Court in such cases as World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson[17] and Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court[18] has looked at a variety of factors, including:

  1. undue burden or inconvenience to the defendant;
  2. the interest of the forum state in hearing the dispute;
  3. the interest of the plaintiff in convenient, efficient relief
  4. the interstate judicial system’s interest in efficient dispute resolution; and
  5. the shared interests of the several states in furthering social policies.

Once minimum contacts have been established a court will determine whether an exercise of jurisdictions comports to notions of fair play and substantial justice, balancing the plaintiff’s interest in litigating in the forum against the defendant’s interest in avoiding the forum and then considering the forum state’s interest in adjudicating the claim. States are generally presumed to have a strong interest in interpreting their own laws.

The opinion in International Shoe has been read to acknowledge two types of in personam personal jurisdiction: general and specific. (Although the general and specific jurisdiction concepts can be found in International Shoe, the Court’s opinion did not use the terms “general jurisdiction” or “specific jurisdiction.”)

General jurisdiction[]

General jurisdiction exists when the contacts that a defendant has with the forum state are so systematic and continuous that the defendant may be sued in the forum state on any claim, including claims wholly unrelated to the defendant’s contacts with the forum. In determining whether general jurisdiction exists, the defendant’s contacts with the forum should be analyzed qualitatively, not quantitatively (i.e., evaluating the nature of the contacts, not their sheer volume), to decide if they support the fair imposition of personal jurisdiction for all claims against the defendant.

Specific jurisdiction[]

Specific jurisdiction looks at the intersection of the defendant, the claim and the forum, examining defendant’s contacts with the forum that are related to the underlying claim.[19] The underlying principle is that the claim itself is related to the defendants contacts with the forum state.

A court employs a three-prong test to determine whether a party has sufficient minimum contacts to be susceptible to specific jurisdiction:

  1. The non-resident defendant must purposefully direct his activities or consummate some transaction with the forum or resident thereof; or perform some act by which he purposefully avails himself of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum, thereby invoking the benefits and protections of its laws;
  2. the claim must be one which arises out of or relates to the defendant's forum-related activities; and
  3. the exercise of jurisdiction must comport with fair play and substantial justice, i.e. it must be reasonable.[20]

The first prong is satisfied by either purposeful availment or purposeful direction, which, though often clustered together under a shared umbrella, “are, in fact, two distinct concepts.”[21]

Secondly, the court must analyze whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant offends “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” This inquiry requires a determination of whether personal jurisdiction over a defendant with minimum contacts is reasonable in light of the circumstances surrounding the case. In assessing reasonableness, a court considers: (1) the burden on the defendant, (2) the forum state's interest in resolving the dispute, (3) the plaintiff's interest in receiving convenient and effective relief, (4) the interstate judicial system's interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of controversies, and (5) the shared interest of the several states in furthering fundamental substantive social policies.

The defendant’s contacts with the forum must be such that it should be reasonably foreseeable that the defendant could be haled into court in the forum. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court in Hanson v. Denckla[22] held that Florida lacked personal jurisdiction over a Delaware institutional trustee of the estate of a woman who established a trust while living in Pennsylvania and continued occasional correspondence with the Delaware trustee after she moved to Florida, concluding that the trustee had not purposefully availed itself of the benefits of doing business in Florida because the trustee’s only contact with Florida was its continued correspondence with the woman caused by her unilateral decision to move to Florida.

Evaluating online contacts[]

Contacts based on the Internet present particularly challenging problems because websites can be accessed from any state; in theory, defendant websites contain information bearing some relationship to the underlying claim thus provide the basis for personal jurisdiction in every state. In the influential case of Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc.,[23] the court adopted a sliding scale analysis: (1) an interactive website (e.g., a site permitting placement of orders relating to the claim from a computer in the forum state through the defendant’s website) would support jurisdiction; (2) a passive website that lacked interactive features (i.e., the site merely provided information related to the subject matter of the claim) would not tend to support jurisdiction, and (3) websites between the passive and e-commerce extremes (a moderately interactive website) should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis (e. g., focusing on whether the website was interactive or commercial in nature) to determine whether they support jurisdiction.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are interactive websites that allow for the knowing and repeated transmission of data over the internet. Interactive websites are sufficient to create personal jurisdiction over a defendant if the website's functions demonstrate that the defendant clearly does business over the internet.[24] In the middle of the spectrum are moderately interactive websites which allow for some exchange of information between a web-user and the website. Whether such a website is sufficient to create personal jurisdiction depends on the level of interactivity and the commercial nature of the exchange of information.

Forum contacts and reasonableness should be evaluated in connection with both general and specific jurisdiction. The plaintiff bears the burden of showing sufficient contacts with the forum to support personal jurisdiction. Once that burden is satisfied, the defendant bears the burden of showing that jurisdiction would be unreasonable.[25]


  1. DHS National Emergency Communications Plan, at 7 n.13.
  2. To qualify for diversity jurisdiction, there must be complete diversity such that no plaintiff is the citizen of the same state as any defendant.
  3. International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 319 (1945)(full-text).
  4. See Burger King v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462, 472 (1985)(full-text).
  5. World-wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980)(full-text).
  6. Omni Capital Int'l v. Rudolf Wolff & Co., Ltd., 484 U.S. 97, 104 (1987)(full-text).
  7. See American Inst. of Certified Pub. Accountants v. Affinity Card, Inc., 8 F.Supp.2d 372, 376 (S.D.N.Y. 1998)(full-text).
  8. In re Magnetic Audiotape Antitrust Litig., 334 F.3d 204, 206 (2d Cir. 2003)(full-text).
  9. Id.
  10. Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878)(full-text).
  11. Hess v Pawloski, 274 U.S. 352, 356 (1927) (full-text).
  12. Kulko v. California Superior Court, 436 U.S. 84, 92 (1978)(full-text), quoting International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 316-17, 319 (1945)(full-text).
  13. Id. at 92, quoting Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 246 (1958)(full-text).
  14. 326 U.S. 310 (1945)(full-text).
  15. Id.
  16. 471 U.S. 462 (1985)(full-text).
  17. 444 U.S. 286 (1980)(full-text).
  18. 480 U.S. 102 (1987)(full-text).
  19. When determining whether specific jurisdiction exists, courts consider the "relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation." Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia v. Hall, 466 U.S. 408, 414 (1984)(full-text), quoting Shaffer v. Heitner, 433 U.S. 186, 204 (1977)(full-text).
  20. See, e.g., Schwarzenegger v. Fred Martin Motor Co., 374 F.3d 797, 802 (9th Cir. 2004)(full-text) (quoting Lake v. Lake, 817 F.2d 1416, 1421 (9th Cir. 1987)(full-text)).
  21. Pebble Beach Co. v. Caddy, 453 F.3d 1151, 1155 (9th Cir. 2006)(full-text).
  22. 357 U.S. 235 (1858)(full-text).
  23. 952 F. Supp. 1119 (W.D. Pa. 1997)(full-text).
  24. See id.; see also Rainy Day Books, Inc. v. Rainy Day Books & Café, 186 F.Supp.2d 1158 (D. Kan. 2002) (full-text) (finding personal jurisdiction based on a highly interactive website that, inter alia, allowed viewers to subscribe to a mailing list, purchase books online through a virtual store, and search for particular products, and sent emails to purchasers to confirm purchases and shipments); Nutraceutical Corp. v., Inc., 2006 WL 1493224, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33762 (D. Utah May 25, 2006) (finding personal jurisdiction based on a highly interactive website that allowed viewers to search for, purchase, and pay by credit card for products).
  25. Burger King v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462 (1985)(full-text).

See also[]

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