In the U.S., what does it precisely mean that federal courts have limited jurisdiction? I ask because I'm unsure whether they can hear cases in which the president or the Congress are involved.

1 Answer 1


The term "jurisdiction" means "the power to make official legal decisions and judgements". When a court has limited jurisdiction, that court can only hear certain types of cases. For example, a bankruptcy court can normally only hear bankruptcy cases, and thus has limited jurisdiction.

Federal courts have limited jurisdiction in that only certain types of cases can be heard in them:

  • the constitutionality of a law
  • those involving U.S. (federal) law and treaties
  • those about ambassadors and public ministers
  • disputes between states
  • admiralty law (i.e., maritime law)
  • bankruptcy cases

To determine whether a case can be heard or not (assuming an actual case has been initiated by some party), the following must apply:

  • the plaintiff must have "standing", which means that the plaintiff must have been aggrieved or legally harmed in some way by the defendant
  • The court must have the authority to actually do something to resolve the case
  • the plaintiff must be experiencing ongoing harm or the case is otherwise somehow unresolved; i.e., the case can't be resolved and then dragged back through court

There is a very readable article on the US Courts website covering more details about jurisdiction (and was the source for my lists above).

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