Legal Dictionary

limited jurisdiction

Definition of limited jurisdiction

Further reading

Limited jurisdiction, or special jurisdiction, is the courts' jurisdiction only on certain types of cases such as bankruptcy, family matters, etc.

The courts of limited jurisdiction, as opposed to general jurisdiction, are courts whose power derives from an issuing authority (e.g. Statute, Constitution). Special jurisdiction courts always must demonstrate that they are authorized to exert jurisdiction under their issuing authority. General jurisdiction courts must only demonstrate that they may assert in personal jurisdiction over a party.

For more information See 46 Am Jur 2d JUDGMENTS 40 Limited jurisdiction courts are where most people experience the justice system firsthand. IN the United States, most are located at the state and local level of government. Traffic and ordinance violation cases represent 55% of the 100 million plus trial court cases filed annually in the U.S. according to the National Center for State Courts' Court Statistics Project (CY 2006 data available at; a rate of over 18,000 cases for every 100,000 residents in the United States. To put this startling statistic in perspective, the second highest case type in U.S. state trial courts is less than half that volume...7,000 criminal cases per 100,000 people. Minor criminal and civil matters, small claims and quality of life crimes (i.e. housing code violations, blight, graffiti, license violations, etc.) all flow to the nation's limited jurisdiction courts in large numbers. How these important, fast-paced courts manage, adjudicate cases and serve customers says much about the American judicial system.

Separate limited jurisdiction courts in the United States have numerous names: city or municipal courts, magistrate courts, justice of the peace courts, city or county district courts (i.e. examples of states with stand-alone LJ courts include Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Michigan and New Jersey). It is common in these jurisdictions for cities and counties to fund and house these tribunals in local courthouses. Although in many instances, LJ judges are lawyers, there are some states where that is not a requirement (i.e. Arizona and Nevada justices of the peace are examples). In a growing number of states, limited and general jurisdiction courts have been unified, often developing divisions or specialty dockets into which judicial officers rotate to handle calendars (i.e. California, Minnesota, and Illinois are examples). LJ judges are selected by either popular election or appointment by the governing board of their "host" government, often a city.

These courts are confronted with large numbers of self-represented litigants and simpler proceedings, often giving the false impression there is disregard for due process. Nothing could be further from the truth. In limited jurisdiction matters, judges frequently must take a more active role in all phases of the adjudicatory process even when lawyers are present. In fact, since many of the attorneys appearing in city and municipal courts are handling high volumes of cases themselves, the judge may be the only guarantee of real fairness in the proceedings by assuring the lawyers have not overlooked a critical issue.

More information about LJ state and local courts in the United States can be obtained from the National Center for State Courts at, the National Judicial College at or the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges, Judicial Division, American Bar Association at


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