If a specific court is authorized to hear a particular case, it has exclusive jurisdiction. If two or more courts are authorized to hear the same matter, they have concurrent jurisdiction.
When two or more courts have concurrent jurisdiction to adjudicate on the same matter, the litigants may choose the one that is likely to be favorable to them. This practice is called FORUM SHOPPING.
When it comes to judiciary, jurisdiction refers to the authority of a court to hear and decide legal matters that arise from a particular geographic area and/or deal with a specific subject matter. In other words, jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear a case and pronounce a verdict. This power is granted to the courts by the constitution, or through laws made by the federal or state governments.
In the United States, there are federal courts that constitute the judicial wing of the federal government and the state courts that function under the respective state governments. While the powers of the federal courts are derived from the United States Constitution and federal laws; state courts are authorized by the state constitution and state laws. So, there are two different court systems in the country.
Principles of Jurisdiction
One of the main factors that decide the jurisdiction of a court is the subject matter of the case. The federal courts deal with certain legal issues that are assigned to them by the Constitution of the United States. State courts have the power to deal with almost all other matters, and those which are assigned to them by the respective state constitutions and laws. While federal courts have the power to hear bankruptcy and admiralty law cases; state courts have the power to adjudicate on issues relating to family laws, probates, traffic violations, etc. Territorial jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to adjudicate on matters or parties that come under a certain geographic territory. Personal jurisdiction is the power of a court over the parties to the case. A court can adjudicate a case, only if it has personal and subject matter jurisdiction.
If a court has exclusive jurisdiction over a territory and/or a subject matter, it is the only court that has the power to hear that matter. If two or more courts have jurisdiction over a territory and/or a subject matter, it is called concurrent or overlapping jurisdiction.
What Does Concurrent Jurisdiction Mean?
Two or more courts have concurrent jurisdiction over a case, when all of them have the power to hear it. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, concurrent jurisdiction is the authority that has been conferred on two or more courts to hear and decide similar cases. In case of concurrent jurisdiction, the party who wants to file the case may choose one of those courts (which share jurisdiction), that may be favorable or useful for him/her. Given below are some examples of concurrent jurisdiction.
Federal and State Courts
As mentioned above, there are two different court systems in the United States. Almost 90% of cases in the country are heard by state courts, as federal courts are entitled to hear cases on a few legal issues like violation of constitutional rights, patent and copyright violations, tax claims, bankruptcy, admiralty laws, etc. However, state courts and federal courts share concurrent jurisdiction in some specific matters.
When do federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction? If the parties to the case reside in different states, the case can be heard by the federal court according to the diversity jurisdiction clause, or by the concerned state court. This can be illustrated with an example. ‘A’ residing in Alabama enters into a contract with ‘B’ residing in Georgia. B violates the contract and ‘A’ wants to sue him. ‘A’ can file the suit before the concerned state court in Georgia or the federal district court. If you want to file such a case before the federal court, the compensation claimed must be more than $75,000.
If a crime that comes under the jurisdiction of a state court, is committed on a federal property, both state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction. Certain federal statutes like Jones Act offer concurrent jurisdiction for state and federal courts to adjudicate claims. Similarly, state and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over Lanham Act claims.
Other Courts and Government Entities
Some state courts may also have concurrent jurisdiction. A higher and a lower court in the same state may have concurrent jurisdiction to hear similar cases. In some cases, courts of general jurisdiction may share concurrent jurisdiction with specialized courts. Jurisdiction may be shared by state or federal courts with government entities with judicial powers. Courts located in different states may also share concurrent jurisdiction in certain cases.
Juvenile Cases: You might have heard about concurrent jurisdiction in juvenile cases. Almost all states have legal provisions to try juvenile cases in criminal courts meant for adults. In some states, the juvenile court judge has the power to transfer a particular case to a criminal court, according to the specified age limit (of the offender). This procedure is called judicial waiver. Some other states adopt a mechanism called statutory exclusion, in which certain grave offenses (like first-degree murder) committed by juveniles have to be filed in criminal courts instead of juvenile courts. Concurrent jurisdiction is another mechanism that is used for trying juveniles in criminal courts. Some states have specific legal provisions that empower prosecutors with the authority to file such cases in either juvenile courts or criminal courts.
Concurrent Jurisdiction and Double Jeopardy
In some cases, a person can be charged for a criminal act in two different courts. If the two courts belong to the same state (sovereign), the defendant has to be tried in any one of them. However, if the defendant has been charged for the same matter, in two different states, he can be tried in both states. For example, ‘A’ who is a citizen of Alabama shoots ‘B’, a citizen of Georgia. While committing the crime, ‘A’ was standing in Alabama and ‘B’ was on the other side of the border, standing in Georgia. In Heath v. Alabama, 474 U.S. 82 (1985), the Supreme Court has ruled that, “The dual sovereignty doctrine provides that when a defendant in a single act violates the ‘peace and dignity’ of two sovereigns by breaking the laws of each, he has committed two distinct ‘offenses’ for double jeopardy purposes.” In short, the defendant is not entitled to the protection offered by the double jeopardy clause, if the doctrine of dual sovereignty is invoked.
This article is only a brief overview of concurrent jurisdiction. Keep in mind that laws may vary from one state to another, and it is advisable to consult a legal expert to know more about the various facets of this legal provision.