“She won on a technicality.” You hear this phrase often, usually in regards to criminal cases, but most people don’t know what it means. To them, it means that someone won a case they should not have, and the court let them do it. What it really means is that a procedural rule in a court case was not followed, and the person breaking that rule got the short end of the stick.
Jurisdiction is a procedural rule. It’s the power or authority of a court to make a decision about a particular person, property, or subject. The court you go to with your case has to have the authority to try it. If it doesn’t, a procedural rule can bar your case. You cannot bring a bankruptcy case to state court or a custody case to eviction court. Those courts don’t have the authority by statute to try those cases.
Motions that rely on procedural rules, such as the motion to dismiss, are frustrating for pro se litigants, who tend to focus more on the merits of a case. That’s understandable. Debris from a neighbor’s remodeling project that broke a $1000 picture window gets more attention than the proper placing of a caption on a complaint.
Lawyers, on the other hand, love procedural rules. A rule that seems unimportant can knock a pro se litigant out before the case even starts. They can lose when they fail to satisfy a notice requirement or respond to admissions. Too often, they give up when a case is dismissed–even when they’re allowed to amend or refile.
Attorneys know this and use it to their advantage. Unfortunately, they don’t have to work that hard. Let’s say an attorney moves to dismiss a case based on subject matter jurisdiction. The idea of a dismissal is scary enough for an inexperienced pro se litigant, but the term subject matter jurisdiction adds an extra layer of apprehension. The pro se litigant feels intimidated and may be unable to “fix” the problem when a court rules against them.
Lawyers win a lot on procedure.
Jurisdiction and other procedural laws serve to help courts run efficiently. They set out time limits for filing claims, cost of filing a claim, notice requirements for a particular motion, layout of briefs, and so on.
Jurisdiction is a scary sounding word, but it’s nothing to fear.
The three main types of jurisdiction are personal, in rem, and subject matter. Personal Jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to make a decision about the parties in a lawsuit. To have authority over a party, the court would need contact with that party. For instance, if a person lives in Texas and has a car accident in Arkansas, their consent to be tried in Arkansas is implied. They chose to drive a vehicle in Arkansas. If you’re a resident of Delaware or have a business there, the state has personal jurisdiction over you. Someone can sue you there. There are other means a court can gain personal jurisdiction over a party.
In Rem jurisdiction is jurisdiction over property within a state. If you have property in Georgia, a bank must sue for foreclosure in Georgia even if a South Carolina courthouse is a block away from the property. That’s a rule that’s pretty easy to understand.
Then there’s subject matter jurisdiction. Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the types of cases a court can hear. These include bankruptcy, family, probate, and similar courts. If your state has a family court, chances are, your custody case should be heard there, not in a court of general jurisdiction. Courts of general jurisdiction handle a wide range of cases and may be split into those that hear cases worth less or more than a certain amount.
Jurisdiction is a forgiving procedural rule.
Unlike a statute of limitations rule, where if you break it you’re pretty much out, if you get jurisdiction wrong, you may have a second or even third chance to get it right.
Let’s say you filed a complaint against someone, and they moved to dismiss based on subject matter jurisdiction. The judge agreed with them and dismissed your case. Is your case really dead?
Typically, if a case is dismissed with prejudice, a doctrine called res judicata kicks in. That means the case has been adjudicated and cannot be re-litigated. Luckily, jurisdiction is an exception to “with prejudice” rules. If a case is dismissed for jurisdictional reasons, it hasn’t been tried on the merits.
So, if a judge doesn’t specify prejudice in the dismissal ruling, don’t assume your case is dead. Assume the dismissal is without prejudice. That means you can refile the case in the right court. In fact, even if the judge grants a dismissal with prejudice on jurisdictional grounds, assume that you can refile in the right court. Then, do your homework to find out if you really can.
Avoid losing on a “technicality.” If you get a dismissal on a jurisdictional issue, don’t roll over and say, “My case was dismissed. I guess that’s that.” Or worse, “I’ll appeal.” If you’ve found a statute that gives you the right to sue, find the right court to sue in. That’s all.