What is Original Jurisdiction? - Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

Some legal cases are picked to go to the Supreme Court before any other because it has original jurisdiction. Learn about original jurisdiction as related to the Supreme Court, federal courts, and state and local courts. Updated: 10/11/2021


When you were a child, did you ever do something bad and knew you had to confess to your parents? If you were like most children, you probably knew which of your parents was the most lenient and, consequently, the one to first tell what happened. By strategically going to this parent, your hope was the overall punishment would be less.

In this example, you were deciding which parent you wanted to have the original jurisdiction over your punishment. In the legal world, the original jurisdiction of a case refers to the court which first hears a case. But unlike our example where you got to pick who heard your case, most of the time, you are not allowed to pick which court has original jurisdiction. The original jurisdiction is contrasted with appellate jurisdiction, which is the court that hears a case when a verdict is appealed.

In this article, we will look at the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, how original jurisdiction is determined in federal courts, and how original jurisdiction is determined in state and local courts.

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Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court

Most of the time, the Supreme Court only hears cases that have already had some decision made in a lower court. For this reason, the Supreme Court is mainly an appellate court. But in section 2 of Article III of the Constitution, it states that the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in cases involving foreign public ministers, consuls, or ambassadors, as well as in cases involving two different states.

A recent example of a 1997 case where the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction was the dispute between New York and New Jersey over whether Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty, is a part of New York or New Jersey. As you can imagine, the amount of tourist money involved would be a severe boost for either state. The Supreme Court ruled that New Jersey had control over all artificially made parts of Liberty Island, and New York had control over all natural parts of Liberty Island. The ruling actually created more confusion and caused New York and New Jersey to agree to jointly run the island.

Original Jurisdiction in Federal Courts

In federal court, original jurisdiction is given to district courts. All civil and criminal trials begin here. Some cases that might be heard in federal court include those involving maritime (water-based) issues, issues where the United States government is being sued, issues between a state and a citizen of a different state, issues between citizens of different states, and issues between citizens and foreign states or governments. After a trial is heard at the district level, the decision can be appealed to a higher appellate court.

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