The primary distinctions between areas of jurisdiction are codified at a national level. As a common law system, jurisdiction is conceptually divided between jurisdiction over the subject matter of a case (called in rem) and jurisdiction over the person (called in personam). A court may use jurisdiction over property located within the perimeter of its powers without regard to personal jurisdiction over the litigants; this is an example of in rem jurisdiction.
A court whose subject matter jurisdiction is limited to certain types of controversies (for example, suits in admiralty or suits where the monetary amount sought is less than a specified sum, is sometimes referred to as a court of special jurisdiction or court of limited jurisdiction.
A court whose subject matter is not limited to certain types of controversy is referred to as a court of general jurisdiction. In the U.S. states, each state has courts of general jurisdiction; most states also have some courts of limited jurisdiction. Federal courts (those operated by the federal government) are courts of limited jurisdiction. Federal jurisdiction is divided into federal question jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction. The United States district courts may hear only cases arising under federal law and treaties, cases involving ambassadors, admiralty cases, controversies between states or between a state and citizens of another state, lawsuits involving citizens of different states, and against foreign states and citizens.
Certain courts, particularly the United States Supreme Court and most state supreme courts, have discretionary jurisdiction, meaning that they can choose which cases to hear from among all the cases presented on appeal. Such courts generally only choose to hear cases that would settle important and controversial points of law. Though these courts have discretion to deny cases they otherwise could adjudicate, no court has the discretion to hear a case that falls outside of its subject matter jurisdiction.
It is also necessary to distinguish between original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction. A court of original jurisdiction has the power to hear cases as they are first initiated by a plaintiff, while a court of appellate jurisdiction may only hear an action after the court of original jurisdiction (or a lower appellate court) has heard the matter. For example, in United States federal courts, the United States district courts have original jurisdiction over a number of different matters (as mentioned above), and the United States court of appeals have appellate jurisdiction over matters appealed from the district courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, in turn, has appellate jurisdiction (of a discretionary nature) over the Courts of Appeals, as well as the state supreme courts, by means of writ of certiorari.
However, in a special class of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to exercise original jurisdiction. Under § 1251, the Supreme court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over controversies between two or more states, and original (but non-exclusive) jurisdiction over cases involving officials of foreign states, controversies between the federal government and a state, actions by a state against the citizens of another state or foreign country.
As a practical example of court jurisdiction, as of 2013 Utah has five types of courts, each for different legal matters and different physical territories. One-hundred-and-eight judges oversee Justice Courts, which handle traffic and parking citations, misdemeanor crimes, and most small claims cases. Seventy-one judges preside over District Courts, which deal with civil cases exceeding small claims limits, probate law, felony criminal cases, divorce and child custody cases, some small claims, and appeals from Justice Courts. Twenty-eight judges handle Juvenile Court, which oversees most people under 18 years old who are accused of a crime, as well as cases of alleged child abuse or neglect; serious crimes committed by 16 or 17 year old persons may be referred to the District Courts. Seven judges in the Appeals Court hear most criminal appeals from District Courts, all appeals from juvenile court and all domestic/divorce cases from District Court, as well as some cases transferred to them by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court seats five judges who hear appeals on first-degree felonies (the most serious) including capital crimes, as well as all civil cases from District Court (excepting divorce/domestic cases). The Supreme Court also oversees cases involving interpretation of the state Constitution, election matters, judicial conduct, and alleged misconduct by lawyers. This example shows how matters arising in the same physical territory might be seen in different courts. A minor traffic infraction originating in Orem, Utah is handled by the Orem Justice Court. However, a second-degree felony arrest and a first-degree felony arrest in Orem would be under the jurisdiction of the District Court in Provo, Utah. If both the minor traffic offense and the felony arrests resulted in guilty verdicts, the traffic conviction could be appealed to the District Court in Provo, while the second-degree felony appeal would be heard by the Appeals Court in Salt Lake City and the first-degree felony appeal would be heard by the Supreme Court. Similarly for civil matters, a small claims case arising in Orem would probably be heard in the Orem Justice Court, while a divorce filed by an Orem resident would be heard by the District Court in Provo. The above examples apply only to cases of Utah state law; any case under Federal jurisdiction would be handled by a different court system. All Federal cases arising in Utah are under the jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the District of Utah, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and would be heard in one of three Federal courthouses.