The Original Jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court

Color photo of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
The US Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.

Aaron P / Bauer-Griffin

While the vast majority of cases considered by the U.S. Supreme Court come to the court in the form of an appeal to a decision by one of the lower federal or state appeals courts, a few but important categories of cases can be taken directly to the Supreme Court under its “original jurisdiction.”

Supreme Court Original Jurisdiction

  • The original jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court is the court’s authority to hear and decide certain types of cases before they have been heard by any lower court.
  • The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is established in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and further defined by federal law.
  • The Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction applies to cases involving: disputes between states, actions involving various public officials, disputes between the United States and a state, and proceedings by a state against the citizens or aliens of another state.
  • Under the Supreme Court’s 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision, the U.S. Congress may not alter the scope of the court’s original jurisdiction.

Original jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear and decide a case before it has been heard and decided by any lower court. In other words, it is a court’s power to hear and decide a case before any appellate review.

The Fastest Track to the Supreme Court

As originally defined in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, and now codified in federal law at 28 U.S.C. § 1251. Section 1251(a), the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over four categories of cases, meaning parties involved in these types of cases can take them directly to the Supreme Court, thus bypassing the usually lengthy appeals court process.

The exact wording of Article III, Section 2, states:

“In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.”

In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress made the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction exclusive in suits between two or more states, between a state and a foreign government, and in suits against ambassadors and other public ministers. Today, it is assumed that the Supreme Court's jurisdiction over other types of suits involving the states was to be concurrent or shared, with the state courts.

Jurisdiction Categories

The categories of cases falling under the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction are:

  • Controversies between two or more states;
  • 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; and
  • All actions or proceedings by a state against the citizens of another state or against aliens.

In cases involving controversies between states, federal law gives the Supreme Court both original—and exclusive—jurisdiction, meaning such cases may be heard only by the Supreme Court. 

In its 1794 decision in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia, the Supreme Court stirred controversy when it ruled that Article III granted it original jurisdiction over suits against a state by a citizen of another state. The decision further ruled that this jurisdiction was “self-executing,” meaning that Congress had no control over when the Supreme Court was allowed to apply it.

Both Congress and the states immediately saw this as a threat to the sovereignty of the states and reacted by adopting the Eleventh Amendment, which states: “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” 

Marbury v. Madison: An Early Test

An important aspect of the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction is that its Congress cannot expand its scope. This was established in the bizarre “Midnight Judges” incident, which led to the Court’s ruling in the landmark 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison.

In February 1801, newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson—an Anti-Federalist—ordered his acting Secretary of State James Madison not to deliver commissions for appointments for 16 new federal judges who had been made by his Federalist Party predecessor, President John Adams. One of the snubbed appointees, William Marbury, filed a petition for a writ of mandamus directly in the Supreme Court, on the jurisdictional grounds that the Judiciary Act of 1789 stated that the Supreme Court "shall have power to issue … writs of mandamus ... to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.”

In its first use of its power of judicial review over acts of Congress, the Supreme Court ruled that by expanding the scope of the Court’s original jurisdiction to include cases involving presidential appointments to the federal courts, Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority.  

Original Jurisdiction Cases That Reach the Supreme Court

Of the three ways in which cases may reach the Supreme Court (appeals from lower courts, appeals from state supreme courts, and original jurisdiction), by far the fewest cases are considered under the Court’s original jurisdiction.

In fact, on average, only two to three of the nearly 100 cases heard annually by the Supreme Court are considered under original jurisdiction. However, though few, these cases are still very important.

Most original jurisdiction cases involve border or water rights disputes between two or more states, and cases of this type can only be resolved by the Supreme Court.

Other major original jurisdiction cases involve a state government taking an out-of-state citizen to court. For example, in the landmark 1966 case of South Carolina v. Katzenbach, for example, South Carolina challenged the constitutionality of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 by suing U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, a citizen of another state at the time. In its majority opinion, written by revered Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court rejected South Carolina’s challenge finding that the Voting Rights Act was a valid exercise of Congress' power under the enforcement clause of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Original Jurisdiction Cases and Special Masters

The Supreme Court deals differently with cases considered under its original jurisdiction than those reaching it through more traditional appellate jurisdiction. How original jurisdiction cases are heard—and whether they'll require a "special master"—depends on the nature of the dispute.

In original jurisdiction cases dealing with disputed interpretations of the law or the U.S. Constitution, the Court itself will usually hear traditional oral arguments by attorneys on the case. However, in cases dealing with disputed physical facts or actions, as often happens because they have not been heard by a trial court, the Supreme Court usually appoints a special master to the case.

The special master—usually an attorney retained by the Court—conducts what amounts to a trial by gathering evidence, taking sworn testimony, and making a ruling. The special master then submits a Special Master Report to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court considers this special master’s report in the way that a regular federal appeals court would rather than conducting its own trial.

Next, the Supreme Court decides whether to accept the special master’s report as it is or to hear arguments over disagreements with it. Finally, the Supreme Court determines the outcome of the case through a traditional vote along with written statements of concurrence and dissent.

Original Jurisdiction Cases Can Take Years to Decide

While most cases that reach the Supreme Court on appeal from lower courts are heard and ruled on within a year of being accepted, original jurisdiction cases assigned to a special master can take months, even years, to settle.

Why? Because a special master must basically start from scratch in handling the case and piecing together relevant information and evidence. Volumes of pre-existing briefs and legal pleadings by both parties must be read and considered. The master may also need to hold hearings in which arguments by lawyers, additional evidence, and witness testimonies are presented. This process results in thousands of pages of records and transcripts that must be compiled, prepared, and weighed by the special master.

Furthermore, reaching a solution when lawsuits are involved can take additional time and manpower. For example, the now-famous original jurisdiction case of Kansas v. Nebraska and Colorado, involving the rights of the three states to use the waters of the Republican River, took nearly two decades to resolve. This case was accepted by the Supreme Court in 1999, but it wasn't until four reports from two different special masters had been submitted that the Supreme Court finally ruled on the case 16 years later in 2015. Fortunately, the people of Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado had other sources of water to use in the meantime.  

Fortunately, not all original jurisdiction cases take so long to decide.

A recent example of a particularly complex original jurisdiction case that took only two months—from October 7, 2003, to December 9, 2003—to decide was Virginia v. Maryland, a case involving the two states and their rights to use the Potomac River are. The Court ruled in favor of Virginia and allowed the state to build on the river’s western shore.

In 1632, the Potomac River was given to the Maryland colony by King Charles I of England. More than 360 years later, the state of Virginia developed a plan to build a water intake pipe in the middle of the river to provide water to Virginia residents. Fearing Virginia's plan could deprive its citizens of water, Maryland objected and initially refused to grant Virginia a permit to build the pipe. After losing in administrative and state court, Maryland agreed to let Virginia build the pipe, but Virginia refused to let the issue die. Instead, it filed suit with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the court to declare that while Maryland owns the river, Virginia has the right to build in it. Virginia cited a 1785 agreement between the states that gave each “the privilege of making and carrying out wharves and other improvements” in the river. Maryland, however, argued that while Virginia may be able to build in the river, it did not have the right to draw water from the river without Maryland's consent. A "special master" appointed to evaluate the case by the Supreme Court issued a non-binding holding agreeing with Virginia.

In the Court’s 7-2 opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist held that Virginia retained sovereign authority to build improvements to its shore and withdraw water from the Potomac without Maryland's interference. Agreeing with the Special Master's conclusion in favor of Virginia, the Court reasoned that Virginia did not lose its sovereignty to build on its shore and withdraw water under the 1785 Compact between the two states.

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Longley, Robert. "The Original Jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court." ThoughtCo, Jul. 6, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 6). The Original Jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Original Jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 5, 2023).