original jurisdiction

Original jurisdiction refers to a court’s authority to hear and decide a case for the first time before any appellate review occurs. Trial courts typically have original jurisdiction over the types of cases that they hear, but some federal and state trial courts also hear appeals in specific instances.

Most of the cases that the United States Supreme Court hears are on appeal from lower courts, either federal district courts, federal courts of appeal, or state courts. However, Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution grants the Supreme Court original jurisdiction over select cases, namely those affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which one of the 50 states is a party. For these types of cases, the parties can bring their controversy directly to the Supreme Court, though the Supreme Court still has discretion as to whether or not to hear the case.

Congress codified the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court by statute in 28 U.S.C. § 1251. Section 1251(a) provides that the Supreme Court has not only original jurisdiction but also exclusive jurisdiction over controversies between two or more States. Section 1251(b) provides that the Supreme Court has original, but not exclusive, jurisdiction over the following cases:

  • All actions or proceedings to which ambassadors, other public ministers, consuls, or vice consuls of foreign states are parties
  • All controversies between the United States and a State
  • All actions or proceedings by a State against the citizens of another State or against non-citizens

The case Marbury v. Madison (1803), not only established judicial review but also held that Congress cannot expand or restrict the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Theoretically, Congress could limit the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction, but Congress has yet to do so.

[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]