Subject matter jurisdiction is where a court gets its authority to hear cases of a particular type or cases relating to a specific subject matter. For instance, a bankruptcy court has the authority to hear only bankruptcy cases.
Subject-matter, personal, and territorial jurisdiction are different things. Personal jurisdiction allows a court to issue a judgment against a particular defendant. Territorial jurisdiction allows a court to render a judgment concerning the events that have occurred within a well-defined territory. While personal and territorial jurisdiction can be waived, a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction cannot be worked around. A judgment from a court that did not have jurisdiction is forever null.
In order for a court to decide a case, it must have a combination of subject matter and either personal or territorial jurisdiction. Subject-matter jurisdiction, personal or territorial jurisdiction, and adequate notice are the most fundamental constitutional requirements for a valid judgment.
State courts have their jurisdiction divided into divisions like criminal, civil, family, and probate. A court within any of those divisions does not have the subject-matter jurisdiction to address matters that are part of another division. The majority of state court systems have a superior court that has “general” jurisdiction. This means the court can hear any case over which there is another court that has exclusive jurisdiction.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over a very small percentage of cases and are authorized by Congress to hear cases arising under a very small area. State courts have the authority to hear the vast majority of cases.