Original Jurisdiction

The term original jurisdiction refers to the question of which court has the authority (“jurisdiction’) to hear a legal case for the first time. For instance, family law court has the authority to hear a child custody case, but not to hear a burglary case. Therefore, the family law court has original jurisdiction. This is a distinction from other courts that may hear the case, or portions of it, following the initial legal action. For instance, an appeal is heard by the appellate court, which has appellate jurisdiction, but has no authority to hear the original legal matter. To explore this concept, consider the following original jurisdiction definition.

Definition of Original Jurisdiction


  1. The authority of a particular court to hear a case for the first time.

What is Original Jurisdiction

Original jurisdiction is the jurisdiction, whether geographical, or specific court, to hear a particular case through to its conclusion. If the matter needs to be appealed, or if certain other questions come up that must be decided by a higher court, the case is then taken to a different jurisdiction – usually an appellate court – to obtain a ruling.

Courts of original jurisdiction generally include state, district, and county courts, among others. Even within these categories, cases are further divided for original jurisdiction. For example, in California, the state Superior Courts hear all types of cases, but each must be heard in the appropriate specialized division. If Sam has a dispute with his neighbor over $500 in damage to his fence caused by the neighbor’s dog, the Superior Court’s Small Claims division has original jurisdiction over the matter.

As another example, original jurisdiction cannot apply to appellate courts because the very purpose of their existence is to review cases that have already been decided, in order to determine whether or not the lower court made an error, or was justified in its decision. The Supreme Court also serves as a kind of appellate court, in that it usually only hears appellate cases from the circuit courts of appeal.

Appellate Jurisdiction vs. Original Jurisdiction

When it comes to jurisdictions, there are two types in particular that a court can hold: appellate jurisdiction, and original jurisdiction. Whichever jurisdiction is exercised depends on the authority afforded to the court hearing any particular case.

Original Jurisdiction

All cases involving federal law must be filed with the federal district court in the assigned geographical location.  If parties to a legal dispute that would normally be heard at the state court level are from different states, then a federal district court will have original jurisdiction. This kind of case is known as a “diversity jurisdiction” case.

Diversity jurisdiction cases also occur when one party to a case is an American citizen, while the other resides in a foreign country. Parties to a diversity jurisdiction case can decide to bring their case to federal district court, but state law may ultimately rule when it comes time for the case to be decided.

Additional courts that can exercise original jurisdiction include:

These courts have the power to hear a case for the first time before it is brought before any other court. Unless a ruling on one of these cases is appealed, then the case will both begin and end in the original jurisdiction court.

Appellate Jurisdiction

Appellate jurisdiction refers to the court authorized to hear the appeal of a case that was originally heard by a court of original jurisdiction. Appellate jurisdiction is relied on by the appeals court when reviewing lower court decisions. This does not mean, however, that the appeals court will hear all of the details of the case. The purpose of hearing a case in its entirety is for a trial, and an appeal is not a second trial, but rather a review of the facts surrounding what the appellant claims to be an error in the proceedings.

Here, the appellate court determines if the lower court made a mistake when it applied the relevant law to a case, or in some procedure during the trial. On appeal, an appellate court is empowered to either alter or reverse the lower court’s decision, should the appellate court find there to be an error in the lower court’s decision.

In addition to the federal circuit courts, other courts that can exercise appellate jurisdiction include:

  • Federal district courts
  • State courts of appeal
  • State supreme courts
  • S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court Original Jurisdiction

Despite being the highest legal authority in the land, the one power the U.S. Supreme Court does not usually enjoy is being the first court to hear a legal case. The Supreme Court only hears cases that have already been decided in a lower court, and often through the lower appellate courts as well. Because of this, the Supreme Court is essentially an appellate court.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction is enabled in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. This section states that the U.S. Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction exists in cases that concern foreign ambassadors, as well as cases that concern two different U.S. states. When the issue is between two or more states, the Supreme Court acts like a trial court by gathering and hearing evidence related to the case. The evidence is heard by a Court-appointed “Special Master,” who also prepares the factual findings.

The lion’s share of cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court concern issues of constitutional authority, and civil rights. As expected, because the Supreme Court is the most powerful court in the land, whatever decision the Court reaches in cases where it has original jurisdiction is final. No one has the right to appeal a decision made by the Supreme Court in these cases.

Marbury v. Madison

A good example of the U.S. Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction can be found in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, which was a landmark case wherein the Supreme Court clearly distinguished the separate branches of the judicial review process that exists today. This means that the Court helped establish the clear differences between the executive and judicial branches as defined by the Constitution.

In this case, William Marbury was selected to be the new Justice of the Peace by President Adams, just before he left office. James Madison, the newly appointed Secretary of State, refused to deliver the signed commission to Marbury, which kept Marbury from taking the office. Marbury, in accordance with the newly enacted Judiciary Act of 1801, petitioned the Supreme Court to force Secretary James Madison to deliver the paperwork to him.

The Court found that, by refusing to deliver the documents, Madison had committed a crime, The Court did not order him to turn the paperwork over, however. Instead, the Court held that the provision within the Judiciary Act of 1801 that Marbury had relied on to file his claim directly with the Supreme Court was, in fact, unconstitutional.

This was due to the fact that the Act had tried to give the Supreme Court original jurisdiction, beyond that which was permitted in the Constitution. In other words, Marbury tried to approach the Supreme Court with this issue thinking the Court had original jurisdiction, when, in fact, it did not. Marbury’s petition was rejected.

Original Jurisdiction Example Involving Ellis Island

An example of original jurisdiction occurred in 1998, when a dispute arose between New Jersey and New York that called for intervention on behalf of the Supreme Court. The point that was being argued was which state had greater ownership over Ellis Island: New Jersey or New York. The case that resulted from this dispute became one of the most well-known examples of original jurisdiction in recent history.

In 1834, before Ellis Island became the major immigration center that it is now, New Jersey and New York had signed an agreement known as an interstate compact. The compact gave the rights to all of the islands that separated New York and New Jersey (including Ellis Island and Liberty Island) to New York. However, New Jersey still held the rights to half of the water channel that separated the states.

This agreement permitted New Jersey to build docks along the riverfront, while New York was permitted to control the islands that it already considered to be part of its territory. This is why certain areas, like Ellis Island, technically belonged to New York, even though they were located on the New Jersey side of the river.

Ellis Island was expanded by the federal government between 1890 and 1934, and soon became the immigration center that it is today. Ellis Island was considered to be a part of New York for decades before New Jersey decided to commence suit. The issues that led to this suit were:

  • The land that was added by the federal government was not clearly granted to New York in its interstate compact with New Jersey.
  • The land was placed in water that had been clearly granted to New Jersey.
  • The majority felt that the “new” land (which was already decades old by the time New Jersey commenced suit) was, in fact, New Jersey’s land.

The Court decided that all of the land that was originally given to New York as part of the compact remained under New York’s jurisdiction. However, any land that was reclaimed from the waters from that point forward fell under New Jersey’s jurisdiction. This means that both states actually own parts of Ellis Island, but that all of the expanded land belongs to New Jersey, and the untouched original land belongs to New York.

After the trial, the two states agreed on where the property lines should be drawn. The result was the 3.3 acres of the island belonging to New York, though the property is a landlocked enclave that is surrounded by New Jersey property. Interestingly, despite everything that occurred in this case, while the Court’s decision changed the ownership of the territories on Ellis Island, the actual landowner of Ellis Island is the federal government.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellant – A person or entity who applies to a higher court for a reversal of a lower court’s decision.
  • Enclave – A territory that is entirely surrounded by territory that belongs to another state.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Special Master – An official appointed by a judge to hear evidence on the judge’s behalf and to make recommendations to the judge based on the evidence at hand.