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Original jurisdiction refers to a court's right to hear a case for the first time. In many judicial systems, there are courts of first impression, or original jurisdiction, as well as appellate courts and higher courts, such as a Supreme Court. Which courts have original jurisdiction depends entirely on the judicial system, but there are some common examples.
In countries where the country is sub-divided into states or territories, such as the United States, Mexico, or Brazil, state courts may have original jurisdiction over some issues while the federal courts have original jurisdiction over others. In some cases, both the federal and state courts may both exercise jurisdiction over a case. In that case, they have what is called concurrent or shared jurisdiction.
A state court system typically has original jurisdiction over issues that are determined by state law. Examples include traffic violations, divorces, state crimes, and civil litigation that is not the result of a claim that the defendant is in violation of a constitutional right. Within the state court systems, there is also a hierarchy of courts. Specialty courts are designed to hear certain types of cases, such as a traffic court, probate court, or small claims court. Absent a specific court designed to hear the type of case in question, the circuit or superior court will generally be the court of first impression for all other cases.
Some legal matters are federal in nature and therefore must be filed in a federal court. In the United States, for instance, bankruptcy is a creation of federal law and therefore must be filed in a federal bankruptcy court. Federal tax issues must also be heard in federal tax courts. Some crimes, such as treason, are the sole purview of federal law and must be charged in a federal court. Other crimes, such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, or transportation of firearms, may be charged at either the state or federal level.
As a rule, appellate and supreme courts have very limited, if any, original jurisdiction. In the United States, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over cases where a state, ambassador, or counsel is a party, and in very limited additional circumstances, such as constitutional challenges. The idea is that the appellate courts should be courts of review for lower court decisions and the Supreme Court is the last resort. In civil law countries, such as Sweden or Germany, there is often more than one "highest court." In those countries, one of the highest courts generally has exclusive jurisdiction over constitutional issues while the others may have the final word on other types of cases.
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