Original Versus Appellate Jurisdiction: Definition & Differences

Federal courts can have either original jurisdiction or appellate jurisdiction. Some courts have both types of jurisdiction. This lesson explains the difference between original jurisdiction and appellate jurisdiction in the federal court system.
When we talk about courts, we often discuss a court’s jurisdiction. Jurisdiction simply means the court has the legal authority to hear that type of case. All federal courts have a limited jurisdiction. This means the federal courts are limited to hearing only those cases authorized by the United States Constitution. Other cases are left to the appropriate state court system.
For example, let’s examine the well-known U.S. Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright. In 1962, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking into and entering a pool hall. This burglary charge was a felony under state law and not typically governed by the federal courts. Gideon was charged and convicted in Florida state court and sentenced to five years in prison.
Federal Court Structure
Let’s take a look at the structure of the federal court system before we consider the progression of Gideon’s case. Both the state court system and the federal court system have three tiers, or levels. In the federal court system, the bottom level is made up of the district courts. These are lower federal courts and are also known as trial courts. If Gideon’s burglary charge had been a federal law violation, then Gideon’s trial would have been held in one of these trial courts.
Cases appealed from the district courts are heard in the middle level, or the circuit courts. These are the federal courts of appeal.
Cases appealed from the circuit courts can be heard in the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is constitutionally established as ‘the highest court in the land.’
Though Gideon’s case was a state court case, it somehow ended up at the top of the federal court system, in the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s see why.
Original Jurisdiction
The federal courts can have either original jurisdiction or appellate jurisdiction over a case. Let’s first examine original jurisdiction. This means the court has the right to hear the case first. The federal court system did not have original jurisdiction over Gideon’s case because his case concerned a state law.
The federal district courts have original jurisdiction over all cases that involve federal law. Note that these courts can also exercise original jurisdiction over cases that involve diversity jurisdiction. Diversity jurisdiction occurs when the parties are citizens of two different states, or one party is a U.S. citizen and the other is a citizen of a foreign country. A diversity plaintiff may choose to bring the case in federal district court, though state law may be used to decide the case.
Besides federal district courts, other courts with original jurisdiction include:
State trial courts
Traffic courts
Family courts
Juvenile courts
Bankruptcy courts
Tax courts
And the United States Supreme Court
These are examples of various courts where cases can originate, or first be presented. But wait a minute! We don’t typically think of the U.S. Supreme Court as having original jurisdiction. However, the U.S. Constitution grants original jurisdiction for the Supreme Court to hear cases involving ambassadors, cases between two states, or cases where a citizen sues his or her state.
Appellate Jurisdiction
Now let’s take a look at appellate jurisdiction. This means the court hears an appeal from a court of original jurisdiction. The appeals court uses appellate jurisdiction to review a lower court’s decision. Just keep in mind that the appellate court will not hear the entire case. It is not a new trial.
Instead, the appellate court simply reviews and rules on a particular disputed issue. These issues will involve whether or not the lower court made an error when applying the appropriate law to the facts of the case. On appeal, the appellate court has the power to modify or reverse the lower court’s decision.
Besides the federal circuit courts, there are many different courts that exercise appellate jurisdiction. These include:
State courts of appeal
State superior courts
State supreme courts
Federal district courts
And the United States Supreme Court
Jurisdiction of the Federal Courts
Notice that the federal district courts serve as both trial courts and appellate courts. As we’ve discussed, district courts have original jurisdiction in cases involving federal law. However, district courts also have appellate jurisdiction to hear appeals from state supreme courts when those appeals involve constitutional questions.
Now let’s take a moment to consider the middle level of the federal court system. The federal circuit courts have only appellate jurisdiction. No cases originate in these courts. These courts only hear appeals from the lower federal courts.
However, the highest level, the U.S. Supreme Court, exercises original jurisdiction and also appellate jurisdiction. We know that certain rare cases can originate in the Supreme Court. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court is better known for hearing appeals from the U.S. circuit court and from state supreme courts if the state case involves an issue of federal law.
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