Vail Law: Here’s a quick primer on venue and jurisdiction in the courts (column) |

Vail Law: Here’s a quick primer on venue and jurisdiction in the courts (column)

Rohn Robbins
Vail Law

If not exactly in the same blood line, then venue and jurisdiction are kissin’ cousins. They are related, as in a more traditional time, in the same way as love and marriage or a horse and carriage.

Simply, venue is where it’s at. Venue is the place where a legal action will be lodged and where the trial will be held. It is the proper place, such as the correct court, to hear a case because that court has authority over events that have occurred within a certain geographical area. A basic principle of U.S. law is that a civil or criminal action will be decided by a court in the locality where the dispute or criminal offense occurred. This principle is expressed in the concept of venue. Here, not there. In this court and not that one.

In accordance with this principle a civil action (that is, matters other than criminal matters) must be commenced where either the plaintiff or the defendant resides, where the cause of action arose, or, if real property is at issue, where the real property is situated. In criminal cases, proper venue is in the locality where the crime was committed (or where a dead body was discovered).

A “cause of action” is just a fancy way of referring to the fact or combination of facts that gives a person the right to sue another. A cause of action is the legal theory forming the basis of a lawsuit.

State and federal venue statutes govern where a case will be tried. State venue statutes list a variety of factors that determine in which county and in which court a lawsuit should be brought, including where the defendant resides, where the defendant does business, where the plaintiff does business or where the seat of government is located. A plaintiff may bring his action in any of the places permitted by state law. Most commonly, states allow a lawsuit to be brought in the county where the defendant resides. Choosing the wrong place is, however, not fatal to the plaintiff’s action. Statutes usually provide that a judgment rendered by a state court is valid even if venue is improper. If a defendant believes the suit is being tried in the wrong venue, then he must usually object at the outset of the case, or he will be presumed to have waived the right to object.

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In criminal cases the defendant must be tried in the venue where the crime was committed or where the body of a victim was discovered. In extraordinary circumstances, however, a court may grant a change of venue. The request for a change of venue is usually made by the defendant, but it can be made by the prosecutor. The court itself may also initiate the transfer of venue. Changes of venue are governed by statute, but the court has great discretion in applying the statutory grounds. The most common reason for a change of venue in criminal cases is pretrial publicity that makes it unlikely that an impartial jury could be selected in the community where the crime occurred.

Then there’s jurisdiction

What then of jurisdiction?

Jurisdiction generally describes any legal authority over a certain area or certain persons. In the law, jurisdiction sometimes refers to a particular geographic area containing a defined legal authority. For example, the federal government is a jurisdiction unto itself. Its power spans the entire United States. Each state is also a jurisdiction unto itself, with the power to pass its own laws. Smaller geographic areas, such as counties and cities, are separate jurisdictions to the extent that they have powers that are independent of the federal and state governments.

Jurisdiction also refers to the origin of a court’s authority. A court may be designated either as a court of general jurisdiction or as a court of special jurisdiction. A court of general jurisdiction is a trial court that is empowered to hear all cases that are not specifically reserved for courts of special jurisdiction. A court of special jurisdiction is empowered to hear only certain kinds of cases. An example of a court of special jurisdiction is the United States Bankruptcy Court whose jurisdiction is limited to bankruptcy actions. Bring a plain vanilla lawsuit before a bankruptcy court and you’ll get a “Huh?” before being booted out the door.

Courts of general jurisdiction are often called district courts or superior courts (“district” courts in Colorado).

Jurisdiction can also be used to define the proper court in which to bring a particular case. In this context, a court has either original or appellate jurisdiction over a case. When the court has original jurisdiction, it is empowered to conduct a trial in the case. When the court has appellate jurisdiction, it may only review the trial court proceedings for error. Generally, courts of general and special jurisdiction have original jurisdiction over most cases, and appeals courts and the jurisdiction’s highest court have appellate jurisdiction.

On who’s authority?

Finally, jurisdiction refers to the inherent authority of a court to hear a case and to declare a judgment. When a plaintiff seeks to initiate a suit, he or she must determine where to file the complaint. The plaintiff must file suit in a court that has jurisdiction over the case. If the court does not have jurisdiction, then the defendant may challenge the suit on that ground, and the suit may be dismissed, or its result may be overturned in a subsequent action by one of the parties in the case.

There are three main types of judicial jurisdiction: personal, territorial and subject matter. Personal jurisdiction is the authority over a person, regardless of his or her location. Territorial jurisdiction is the authority confined to a bounded space, including all those who may be present therein, and events which may occur there. Subject matter jurisdiction is the authority over the subject of the legal questions involved in the case.

How are venue and jurisdiction different? “Jurisdiction” is the authority given to a legal body for hearing a case. “Venue” is the place where a case is heard. Jurisdiction is the hammer of the law (okay, maybe the gavel). Venue is where it’s at. Jurisdiction is the court’s way of saying, “Hey, I’ve got this. It’s within the powers given to me to hear this issue.” Venue says, “We’ll hear that here.”

Related concepts to be sure. Like a ball and bat. Or hand in glove. Taken together, jurisdiction and venue determine precisely where and before whom an action should be heard in order to commence a case.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address,

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