What’s the Jurisdiction, Kenneth?

Jurisdiction is more than just a word snide investigators in TV procedurals use to chase another law enforcement agency off of its case. It has two major definitions in law. The first is the power of a court to hear cases and issue decisions and orders. The second, more geographic (and relevant to plot lines) definition is the territory in which a court has that power. The United States has two main judicial systems: the federal system and the state systems. Each state has its own structure for its state courts. Within Connecticut we have the state judicial branch courts (Superior, Appellate, Supreme) and the probate courts. Jurisdiction could overlap in many ways: Connecticut is also a federal district. There are also several judicial districts and geographic area courts within Connecticut state courts.

Each jurisdiction sets its own rules of practice and admission. States (and territories) require bar exams or a non-exam admission requirement and may be reciprocal with other states–practicing for a certain amount of time in one state may make one eligible for admission without taking the bar exam in another–but does not mean an attorney can just show up and practice. There is not one federal bar admission. Each federal district, circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court has its own requirements. Some districts require an attorney to be licensed in the state courts of the state in which the federal court sits. Some do not. I remember a few rumors among law school students that there were some magic states wherein passing the bar for one gives you other states’ admissions. Not true.

While jurisdictional issues may be arcane in a lot of cases, jurisdictions are highly relevant to prospective clients in looking for lawyers. I say this because I occasionally receive a call or email from a person interested in my services but has a case that is not in one of my jurisdictions. I once received a call from a person who received a subpoena to a criminal trial and was looking for counsel to the nature of the potential testimony. when I asked to which courthouse it was directed, the caller gave an address that I didn’t recognize. When I asked the city and state, the caller said Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I am not licensed to practice in Pennsylvania and even if I were, Pittsburgh would be a haul. I once received an email from a person in the Pacific northwest who was looking for an attorney who was outside the area because the potential case involved judicial corruption. I could see that but Connecticut was too outside that area.

If you are looking for an attorney, you want to make sure he or she is knowledgeable in the case’s particular legal area and also familiar with the judicial system it is in. I practice mostly in the Connecticut state courts. I am familiar with all of our criminal courts, especially Meriden and New Haven, where defendants of crimes that originate in the New Haven area most often go, as well as Middletown, Milford, Waterbury and Derby. I often go to the juvenile courts in Middletown, New Haven and Waterbury. I will also go to Hartford, New London, Rockville (Tolland), Norwalk, Norwich, Danbury, New Britain and even Litchfield if the case requires it, and the Appellate Court in Hartford to pursue or defend an appeal.

Pro hac vice is the motion that allows attorneys from outside a case’s jurisdiction to appear on a case. Sometimes a specialist from another state will be brought on to assist a trial team (e.g. Barry Scheck and Alan Dershowitz in several nationally known trials). Some movies have taken liberties with this type of admission. I recommend starting with a local attorney before bringing in the big guns.


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