Determining jurisdiction in a civil lawsuit

On Behalf of | Jul 13, 2020 | civil litigation |

Jurisdiction of courts is among the first things students learn in law school, and yet questions continuously arise over whether a court has the power to decide certain cases or enter judgments against a person or a business. In its most basic form, jurisdiction is the legal authority granted to a court to hear cases and make decisions and judgments. A court cannot rule on a case unless it has jurisdiction over the subject matter and the persons involved, making determining jurisdiction an important aspect of civil lawsuits.

Does the court have jurisdiction over the case type?

“Subject matter jurisdiction” means that a court has authority to decide the types of cases brought to it. Early in our nation’s history, many states had different courts hearing different types of cases. Some, particularly Delaware, still do. However, the Illinois Constitution of 1970 provides for a unified court system, giving Circuit Courts jurisdiction over “all justiciable matters.” This is a broad grant of authority, encompassing civil lawsuits, family matters including divorce and child custody, and criminal proceedings. The one exception is matters decided by administrative agencies such as the Illinois Department of Employment Security and some municipal agencies; in those cases, the power of the courts is limited to reviewing the agency’s decisions under the Illinois Administrative Review Law.

Federal courts have more limited subject matter jurisdiction. They may only hear cases arising under the United States Constitution or Federal law, called “Federal question jurisdiction,” or between citizens of different states, called “diversity jurisdiction.” Diversity jurisdiction is limited to cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.00, and in cases involving multiple parties, all plaintiffs must be citizens of a different state than all defendants. Federal courts have no power to hear state law small claims, divorce, or probate matters.

Does the court have jurisdiction over a person?

“Personal jurisdiction” examines whether the court has the power to make legal decisions over a person. While state courts generally have jurisdiction over their own residents and businesses, questions arise when a non-resident is sued in a state court. Under the case of International Shoe Co. v. Washington, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1945, state courts have jurisdiction over non-residents if (a) the non-resident has sufficient “minimum contacts” with the state, (b) the lawsuit arose out of those contacts, and (c) jurisdiction would be consistent with the notions of fair play and substantial justice. This seemingly simple standard has given rise to much litigation, particularly with businesses that have some presence in a state, but not an extensive one.

In all cases, courts obtain jurisdiction over a person or business only when the person is served with a summons and a copy of the complaint. States have specific rules on the form of the summons, who can serve summons, and when the summons may be served. For example, in Illinois, the summons must contain the name of the person or entity to be served; it is not enough that the person is named in the complaint. Usually, the summons is served by the county sheriff, but a plaintiff may instead use a licensed private detective, unless the person is served in Cook County. In that case, the detective must be first appointed by the court. Failure of plaintiffs to follow those rules could render a judgment void, even if the defendant knew about the lawsuit. A defendant can waive formal service and even a “minimum contacts” objection to jurisdiction by participating in the case.


While personal and subject matter jurisdiction is often uncontested, it remains important to remember that a case cannot be heard or judged unless the court has both. If you are initiating a civil lawsuit, you need to ensure the jurisdictional and service rules are followed in order to prevent lengthy delays. If you are defending yourself against a suit, and your case presents a jurisdictional question, you should see an attorney prior to doing anything in the case so you do not waive the issue. Finally, if you suddenly learn a judgment was entered against you in a case you knew nothing about, you might have a chance to have it vacated if you can show that you were not served with process.