Diversity Jurisdiction: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

When can you make a federal case out of it? In this lesson, we will learn how diversity jurisdiction allows a legal matter between two citizens to wind up in a federal courthouse.

You get into a fender bender that was your fault. The driver is heated and starts yelling at you. You show him your insurance card and driver's license and tell him to calm down and not make a federal case of it. A few weeks later you get served with papers saying that you are commanded to appear in federal court. Apparently, he did make a federal case out of it. Is that right? Why would a federal court be the right place to hear a personal injury case?

When Can a Court Hear a Case?

Jusisdiction is the authority of a court to hear a case. A court must have authority in three areas of jurisdiction before it can preside over a case. Territorial (often called venue), in personum or personal (over the person), and subject matter (the power of the court to hear the subject of the case). In both state and federal courts, this authority comes from a statute which means that a law was passed providing that authority.

If a court doesn't have all three of those in a particular case, then that court can't hear that case. Even the US Supreme Court can't hear a case if it doesn't have the proper jurisdiction.

State and Federal Courts

Typically, like oil and water, federal and state courts don't mix. They each have their sphere of authority, and they rarely share that authority. The Constitution lays out the powers that jurisdiction of the federal courts has, and the 10th Amendment says 'the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.' This creates a line between the federal court system and the individual state systems.

New York-New Jersey state line inside the Lincoln Tunnel
Lincoln Tunnel State Line

For example, a New York media mogul's prize Doberman Pinscher is held for ransom. The local police have complete control of the case, but if they took the dog through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey, then the federal government would have jurisdiction since the crime occurred over two states. At this point, the Federal Bureau of Investigations could get involved and charge the dog-nappers in federal court. It's similar in civil cases. Controversies that arise between state citizens typically remain in that state, however, there are exceptions.

Federal Jurisdiction

Article III, Section 2, of the United States Constitution, gives the federal courts jurisdiction over 'all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution'. This means a federal trial court can hear any case involving the subject matter of a constitutional right. This is called a federal question and it means that if at the center of a dispute, there is a question of federal law or the United States Constitution, then the federal courts would have jurisdiction.

The United States Constituiton
US Constitution

For example, let's say the local police raid your home and find nothing. They have a warrant, but you contend it was an invalid warrant. If you decide to sue the local police department, you can do so in federal court because the subject matter of your complaint is your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. This extends to any other of the rights guaranteed to US citizens in the Constitution and to any matter arising from a valid federal statute.

'But wait!' you wonder, 'how can a simple personal injury case end up in federal court? It's called diversity jurisdiction, and it also comes from Article III of the Constitution.

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