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Essay:Overview of First Year Law Concepts

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Written by αmεσg, a second-year law student at NYU School of Law.

Civil Procedure[edit]

Jurisdiction is the power of the state to adjudicate claims against a person's property, or an individual, either a natural individual, a corporation, or other entity. The state's power is not unlimited, but is circumscribed by "notions of substantive justice and fair play," and activated by the state's "long-arm" statute. In short, for an individual's rights or property to be adjudicated, it must be "objectively foreseeable," and fit into one of the following categories:

  • In Personam Jurisdiction: a state can adjudicate the rights of an individual if the individual has "minimum contacts"[1] with the state, such as business contacts, or physical presence within the state.[2] Minimum contacts will grant "general in personam jurisdiction," meaning the state can adjudicate any of the individual's rights. The following, though, give rise only to specific jurisdiction, or the right to adjudicate only the specific incident:
    • Commission of a tort within the state ordinarily gives rise to specific jurisdiction, so long as it is foreseeable. Commission of a business tort, such as a product liability suit, is proper in the state where the wrong associated with the product occurred, so long as the foreseeable "stream of commerce" brought the product into the state. Movement post-sale is generally not enough.
    • Signing a contract in the state makes the contract amenable to adjudication in the state.
  • Quasi In Rem Jurisdiction: this theory is fading, and fading fast, but allows the state to adjudicate a person's rights for only the amount of property the person has in the state. For example, if a person has $6,000 of land in the state, the state may adjudicate $6,000 worth of the person's rights, but no more. After Schaeffer v. Heitner, this theory is questionable at best.
  • In Rem Jurisdiction: a state may sue a piece of property inside the state, forcing any alleged owners of the property to litigate the ownership of the property in-state. For example, if I have $6,000 of land in the state, I have to be able to defend my ownership of that land, if it comes into question.
  • Federal Subject Matter Jurisdiction: where a federal statute grants a cause of action, or the federal Constitution is implicated, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction of the matter. Generally, an antecedent question of federal law is not enough; the main subject must be federal. Where a related state-law lawsuit arises from the same "transaction or occurrence" as a federal question of law, the state law claim may be adjudicated in federal court as "pendent jurisdiction." Also, where there is "complete diversity" among the parties of a suit - as in, no party is from the same state as another - and the amount in controversy is over $75,000, federal jurisdiction is proper. Class actions over $500,000 are automatically federal matters, as well.

Venue is a second, related topic of jurisdiction. When jurisdiction is proper, venue may still be improper, and parties may make a forum non conveniens motion, to move the lawsuit to a more convenient location. Generally, where the events giving rise to the suit occur, venue is proper. Where one party resides, venue is also proper.

Choice of Law is a very complicated field of procedure. It is the legal question of, when multiple jurisdictions are involved in a lawsuit, whose law controls? This is often a separate class at law school, but briefly....

  • Vertical choice of law is the choice of state or federal law in a federal diversity dispute. Federal law controls in any subject matter dispute, but where federal venue is proper only because of diversity of citizenship, a vertical choice of law question arises. This is a very complicated question of law, controlled by the "Erie Doctrine."[3] In brief, state law controls substantive matters, and federal law controls procedural matters. If procedural matters are "outcome-determinative," though - as in, would affect the outcome - state law controls. State statutes of limitations are generally applied, since they're "borderline-substantive."
  • Horizontal choice of law' is a much less complicated issue, and arises when two parties are from different states with different law. Generally, the maximum "aggregate contacts" will suggest which state's law to apply: such as, if 3 parties are from Indiana, and 1 is from Texas, Indiana law controls. Courts fudge this question a lot, though, and generally, the law picked is the one that the better lawyers want :-). In federal court, when choosing which state's law to apply after having decided to apply state law, the federal court will use the state's choice of law rules.[4]

Constitutional Law[edit]


As Applied to the Internet[edit]

  1. See, e.g., Int'l Shoe.
  2. See, e.g., Burnham v. Superior Court.
  3. Erie v. Tompkins.
  4. Head hurt yet?