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Going to federal court

Genealogists love court records.

They tell us all kinds of things about our families we couldn’t have found out in any other way.

But with all the various courts and levels of courts that existed over the years, finding the court records can be problematic.

SCourtAnd yesterday’s post about a New Jersey motor vehicle accident that may have landed up in federal court1 left a number of readers shaking their heads.

“You mean a simple car accident could go into federal court?” asked reader Jennifer from Texas.

“Could any case where people were from different states end up as a federal lawsuit?” asked reader Janice.

And reader Tom from California wondered: “What about people from different states today? If I get into a fight with my brother in Nevada, can I take him to federal court?”

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Slow down.

Let The Legal Genealogist back up a little and clarify.

No, a simple car accident — one where the amount of damages was really small — couldn’t go into federal court.

No, not every case where people were (or are) from different states ended up as a federal lawsuit.

No, Tom can’t take his fight with his brother in Nevada into federal court…


And that, of course, is the operative word. The word that makes the answer to every question about whether a case could go to federal court begin with those two words that warm the cockles of every lawyer’s heart:

It depends.

Here’s the story.

State courts, as a group, are what are usually called courts of general jurisdiction — jurisdiction meaning the right or power or authority to hear and decide cases.2 They’re called that because, in general, if you’ve got some sort of legal dispute with somebody else, there will be some state court, somewhere, at some level, that has the power to hear the case.

Federal courts, by contrast, are courts of limited jurisdiction. They only have the power to hear the kinds of cases that fall within the categories set out in the Judicial Article of the U.S. Constitution:

• “all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority;”
• “all cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls;”
• “all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction;”
• “controversies to which the United States shall be a party;”
• “controversies between two or more states;”
• “between a state and citizens of another state;”
• “between citizens of different states;”
• “between citizens of the same state claiming lands under grants of different states,”
• “between a state, or the citizens thereof, and foreign states, citizens or subjects.”3

So you can see that one of the limited categories, right from the start, was where the fight was “between citizens of different states” — a category that’s known as diversity jurisdiction.4

But it never was any fight between citizens of different states. That’s because, right from the very beginning, when the federal courts were first set up in the Judiciary Act of 1789, most cases — including all diversity cases — carried one more limit.

You couldn’t go into federal court then unless the amount in controversy — the amount of damages you were looking to collect — was at least $5005 — a fair amount of money in 1789.

Then, and for many years afterwards, some dollar limit applied even if the case involved purely federal law. The idea always was that state courts could — and they still can — hear most cases where federal law is at the heart of the issue. Only certain types of federal law cases were required to be heard in federal court. Today, that would include things like copyright cases and bankruptcies.

Eventually, for most of those constitutional categories of cases, the dollar limit was removed. Most… but not all.

The big exception — the one where, even today, there still is a dollar amount you have to show is at stake as the amount in controversy — are the diversity jurisdiction cases. If your only claim to federal jurisdiction is that you live in one state and the folks you’re suing live in another state, you still have to meet a dollar limit.

So… how much was the amount in controversy that would get you (or your ancestors) the right to go to federal court instead of state court? As noted, it began in 1789 as $500. And it went up:

• to $2,000 in 1887,6

• to $3,000 in 1911,7

• to $10,000 in 1958,8

• to $50,000 in 1988,9 and

• to what it is today — $75,000 — in 1996.10

In part, then, the reason why the New Jersey case could have gone into federal court in 1934 is that the action would have been one for wrongful death: remember, somebody died in that motor vehicle accident. And the amount of damages the family would be asking for would have been way more than just $3,000.

It’s the amount of controversy that would have set that case apart from the routine fender bender — and that’s one key thing to look at when you’re trying to figure out if your ancestor’s fight with somebody from another state could have gone to federal court instead of state court.

We’ll leave the question of why your ancestor might have preferred a federal court to a state court — and vice versa — for another day…


Image: Lewis Schell, “Front of Supreme Court building
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

  1. Judy G. Russell, “For the Record(er),” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 Mar 2014 ( : accessed 11 Mar 2014).
  2. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 663, “jurisdiction.”
  3. Article III, §2, Constitution of the United States.
  4. See Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 11 Mar 2014), “diversity jurisdiction.”
  5. §11, “An Act to establish the Judicial Courts of the United States,” 1 Stat. 73, 78 (24 Sep 1789).
  6. §1, “An Act To amend the act of Congress approved March third, eighteen hundred and seventy five… ,” 24 Stat. 552 (3 March 1887).
  7. §24, “An Act To codify, revise, and amend the laws relating to the judiciary,” 36 Stat. 1087, 1091 (3 March 1911).
  8. §2, “An Act Amending the jurisdiction of district courts in civil actions with regard to the amount in controversy and diversity of citizenship,” 72 Stat. 415 (25 July 1958).
  9. §201(a), “An Act To amend title 28, United States Code, to make certain improvements with respect to the Federal judiciary, and for other purposes.” 102 Stat. 4642, 4646 (19 Nov 1988).
  10. §205(a), Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996, 110 Stat. 3847, 3850 (19 Oct 1996).
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