Limited jurisdiction is a term that applies to courts. It means that the court can only hear, or preside over, certain types of cases. Within the United States, most courts are courts of limited jurisdiction.
In order to rule on a case, or to make a decision, the court must have jurisdiction over the parties involved in the dispute. Since different courts are vested with different powers, not every court has jurisdiction over every person or situation. Jurisdiction simply means the court has the right to tell the parties in the case what to do, and to set precedent, make case law, regarding the issue.
Under the Constitution of the United States, some power was delegated to the federal government, and other power was left to the states. Likewise, federal courts, such as the Supreme Court, Federal District Courts, Federal Appellate Courts, and Federal Bankruptcy Courts, also have power over only certain things. Issues that the federal courts do not have power over are usually left to state courts to decide, unless the case is appealed to the federal Supreme Court.
Thus, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. Federal district courts can hear a case only if it meets certain conditions. The case must either arise out of a federal question, or must involve people from different states and an amount in controversy of over $75,000 US Dollars (USD).
A federal question means that the plaintiff and defendant are having a dispute based upon how federal law applies in their situation. For example, if one party believes that his Constitutional rights were violated, that question must be decided in federal court, since only the federal courts have the jurisdiction to interpret the US Constitution. The example is based on a federal question: the proper interpretation of the Constitution.
State courts are also courts of limited jurisdiction. A state court cannot decide a case if exclusive power is vested in the federal government. For example, a state court cannot settle an issue based on the United States' Constitution. A state court also cannot preside over a federal tax case or a bankruptcy case.
Other courts of limited jurisdiction include family court and small claims court. Family courts can only decide issues that arise out of family law, such as divorce cases and custody cases. Small claims court can only decide cases if the amount in controversy falls under a certain stated limited.