original jurisdiction | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Courts

Original jurisdiction is the power given to a court to hear a case for the first time rather than reviewing an already decided case from a lower court.

In the world of criminal justice, terms like original jurisdiction pop up frequently. After all, this is a fundamental concept that helps explain how courts work. But what does it mean? Above all, original jurisdiction is about which court gets to hear a case first.

Think of a game of baseball. A batter hits the ball, and the first baseman is usually the first to try and catch it. In a similar way, a court with original jurisdiction is like that first baseman. It’s the court that gets the first chance to ‘catch’ the case and make a decision about it. Afterward, if there are any issues with that decision, it can be passed to other players or, in this case, higher courts.

Not only does this system make sure cases are handled efficiently, but also, it guarantees that each case gets a fair and impartial hearing right from the start.

Court Levels and Jurisdiction

In the American criminal justice system, there are three main levels of courts: trial courts, appellate courts, and supreme courts. Each level has a different role.

Trial courts are where most cases start. This is because trial courts hold original jurisdiction over most cases. They’re responsible for hearing all the facts, evaluating evidence, and deciding whether a law was broken.

If someone isn’t happy with a decision made by a trial court, then they can appeal the case. This is where appellate courts come in. They have what’s called appellate jurisdiction. They don’t hear cases for the first time; instead, they review decisions made by trial courts.

Finally, there’s the supreme court. It mainly has appellate jurisdiction, but it also holds original jurisdiction in some special situations, like disputes between states.

Importance of Original Jurisdiction

The principle of original jurisdiction is vital in criminal justice. Both the accused and the prosecutor can present their full cases in a court with original jurisdiction. This is different from appellate courts, where the focus is mostly on whether the original trial was fair and correctly applied the law.

In addition, this concept helps keep order in the court system. After all, without it, cases could theoretically be brought to any court, leading to chaos and confusion. Instead, original jurisdiction helps route cases to the correct court first, ensuring a smooth process for everyone involved.


All in all, original jurisdiction is a cornerstone of the American court system. It designates who gets the first crack at a case, ensuring fairness, efficiency, and a logical process. Whether you’re studying for a test or just trying to understand the news, grasping this concept is an important step toward understanding criminal justice.

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Last Modified: 07/11/2023

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