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Original Jurisdiction of Supreme Court

Last Updated: 2006

In the American federal system, the state courts are courts of general jurisdiction, while the federal courts are courts of special jurisdiction. Thus, only those types of jurisdiction that are either delegated to the federal courts by the Constitution or given to the federal courts by Congress pursuant to the Constitution fall under the federal courts’ jurisdiction.

Under the Articles of Confederation, there was no standing system of federal courts. However, the Confederation Congress was empowered by the Articles to create extraordinary courts for the resolution of interstate disputes. Yet, Congress proved unwilling to employ this provision to decide some interstate disputes, notably that involving the Vermont counties of New York, in the Confederation period. The unwieldiness of this Confederation provision was one of the factors impelling nationalists of the 1780’s to seek adoption of a new federal constitution.

In addition, it seemed to the authors of the Constitution that the federal courts should have authority to decide cases involving foreign representatives. Thus, while Article III—the Judiciary Article—gave Congress broad discretion in devising a new system of federal courts and in allocating jurisdiction to federal courts, it provided, “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.”

Never again would 2 states face off as had Pennsylvania and Virginia over their western land claims or as had New Jersey and New York during the Revolution. From the federal courts’ inception, they would decide such cases.

SEE ALSO: Articles of ConfederationFederal CourtsState Courts


Jack N. Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).