Hypothetical Legal Jurisdiction Problems


At the end of the above thread, a question came up, and after some brief research, I don’t know the answer.

Which courts have jurisdiction over the following:

  1. Torts committed on federal property? In DC?

  2. Contracts entered into on federal property? In DC?

  3. Contracts entered into by someone on federal land and someone not on federal land? In DC?

  4. Torts on a ship in US waters?

  5. Torts on a US flagged ship in international waters?

  6. Torts committed on a US flagged ship in the waters of a foreign country?

  7. Any other funky jurisdiction question I haven’t thought of here?

By federal land, I’m thinking of military bases or federal parks located within a state.

IANAL, but it seems that many of the above would be heard exclusively in a federal district court, with the exception of some actions based on events occurring on military bases that would be heard in a military tribunal of some kind (i.e., “courts martial”).

For example, DC has its own district court, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. See 28 USC § 88 (DC is a judicial district). Until recently, it had general jurisdiction just as if it were a state court, applying local law as passed by Congress. Western Urn Mfg. v. American Pipe & Steel Corp, 284 F.2d 279, 281 (DC Cir 1960). Today, the diversity of citizenship jurisdictional statute, 28 USC § 1332(d), defines “states” to include DC; i.e., citizens of DC are akin to citizens of a hypothetical “state” of DC. So the old rule is still the case, but on different statutory footing. Generally speaking, the local federal district court has general jurisdiction over geographical areas that aren’t the part of any state and that are governed by Act of Congress. Further, actions based on conduct occurring on the navigable waters in the U.S. are within the federal courts’ admiralty jurisdiction. 28 USC § 1333. Admiralty jurisdiction is exclusively federal: a lawsuit arising out of a collision on Lake Michigan would be heard in federal court, not an Illinois state court.

But again, there are other sources of federal subject matter jurisdiction that could apply to these cases. For example, controversies over $75K between citizens of different states or an alien and a citizen would get into federal court through 28 USC 1332. Certain kinds of torts – e.g., antitrust torts – would be federal questions since they’re based on federal law (e.g., the Sherman Act), and therefore could get into federal court that way too.

Here’s a funky jurisdictional question: what about actions arising out of conduct occurring on Indian reservations? There’s all sorts of talk of “comity” in the cases in which federal courts dismiss actions so that they can first be heard by tribal courts.

But maybe we should let a lawyer speak up, rather than my Lexis-enhanced WAGs.

Nice post!


I was thinking about torts and contracts that are governed by state law.

The problem is that you have a state law claim arising on federal property.

I included the federal parks hypo to avoid the military courts as being the only possible answer.

I am aware of general federal question and diversity jurisdiction, so we can take those off the table.

Is a federal park “part of a state”?

Not sure Mr. Hand is entirely right. I am a lawyer and am currently studying to take the bar to get myself admitted in another state. Here are some answers:

Which courts have jurisdiction over the following:

Torts committed on federal property?
Depends on who plaintiff & defendant are. If both citizens of same state, state court has jurisdiction. If there is diversity, and amount in controversy high enough, then could be state or federal court (“concurrent jurisdiction”). Federal property is not federal “island” upon which federal law applies. Federal courts get jurisidiction only in there is diversity, or a federal question (i.e., based on the US constitution, or federal law). Now, Congress could potentially pass a law that says “federal courts have jurisdiction over anything that happens on federal land” but I don’t think they have in all instances.

In DC?
DC has a thing called “DC Superior Court” which acts like a sort of state court system for DC. Federal district court in DC hears only those cases that are “federal question” or “diversity.”

  1. Contracts entered into on federal property? In DC?
    See above. Depends on who the parties are to the contract. Also, the parties can agree in the contract to any jurisdiction they choose anyway (i.e., party A in California and party B in New York could agree to jurisdiction in Delaware for any disputes. Many corporations do just that).

  2. Contracts entered into by someone on federal land and someone not on federal land? In DC?
    See above.

  3. Torts on a ship in US waters?
    Don’t know a whole lot about maritime law, but I think, depending on how far out you are in the water, could be state or federal. Think of a boat docked in NY harbor. NY gets jurisdiction. If it is 3 miles out, US gets jurisdiction.

  4. Torts on a US flagged ship in international waters?
    Federal district court. A U.S. flagged ship is considered a little floating piece of the USA.

  5. Torts committed on a US flagged ship in the waters of a foreign country?
    I’m pretty sure both countries have jurisdiction.

  6. Any other funky jurisdiction question I haven’t thought of here?
    There was a question about Indian reservations. That is a subject that gets real weird (studied in in law school). Indian tribes are considered sovreign nations within the US, not subject to state laws (hence, how they get to erect casinos in states where gambling isn’t legal). Federal government does have some rights within Indian lands, though.

By federal land, I’m thinking of military bases or federal parks located within a state.

schplebordnik, you’re right and I’m wrong. The District of Columbia Court Reform Act of 1970, Pub.L. 91-358 (1970), 84 Stat. 473, changed the judicial system in DC. It created the DC Superior Court, just as you said. For awhile, it had an amount in controversy requirement for subject matter jurisdiction, DC Code, 1996 Supp sect 11-921(a)(2), but that was eliminated in the 70s. Now all civil and criminal actions have to be brought in this local court (unless you can get into federal court thru federal question or diversity jurisdiction).

I’m pretty sure about the admiralty stuff. Anything within admiralty jurisdiction is exclusively federal. 28 USC 1333; see also, e.g., Jerome B. Grubart, Inc. v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995).

As far as torts committed on federal property, well, maybe you could get into court if Congress has passed a statute giving you a right to sue because of that. But that’s just federal question jurisdiction. So you’re right again.

Good luck with the bar. What state are you taking it in? Any advice for a 2L?

Don’t mean to get persnickety, but that may be true in civil actions but not in criminal actions. Federal property in a municipality is governed by both federal and city (county or state) jurisidiction. Only if the federal government declines to act, can the state entertain jurisdiction. There are plenty of cases on this.

Doesn’t the answer to tort jurisdiction depend in part on the nature of the federal interest in the land? If the federal government is the owner of the land and nothing more, then wouldn’t state law, and state court jurisdiction, continue to apply? (in addition to any federal jurisdiction, like the diversity jurisdiction, of course.)

Wouldn’t state court jurisdiction only be ousted if the state legislature had ceded jurisdiction under Article I, s. 8, thereby giving the federal government exclusive jurisdiction?

If it’s property used for federal purposes, such as a federal building, federal court house, etc., there is concurrent jurisdiction.