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.
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).