When the United State Congress and the President are involved in a legal fight together, the resulting legal case originates in a US District Court for DC, as was the case for United States v. Nixon. The same seems to be occurring today, with President Trumps's lawsuit against Rep. Elijah Cummings (that lawsuit is technically leveled at a member of Congress rather than Congress itself, but would likely still apply since the suit specifies Cummings is acting in his official capacity as Chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee).

Why are these lawsuits between the highest level of each branch of government not instantly heard by the Supreme Court, instead being relegated to lower courts to work up the ladder as if it were a typical court case?

  • AFAIK, the Supreme Court can refuse to hear a case that is appealed from a lower court. So there is no guarantee that a lawsuit between the President and Congress will ever get to the Supreme Court, even if one side tries to appeal.
    – Simd
    May 16, 2019 at 10:13
  • Congress wasn't directly involved in U.S. v. Nixon. The plaintiff was the United States, as represented by Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, an official of the Department of Justice. So on paper the case was entirely within the Executive Branch (and indeed that was one of Nixon's arguments for why it should be dismissed: that the courts should not be involved in an intra-branch dispute). Oct 23, 2021 at 18:19

2 Answers 2


U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 2,

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United 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.

Because the demand by Chairperson Cummings, is based on the Laws of the United States, the Supreme Court only has appellate Jurisdiction.

To change that would require a Constitutional Amendment.

In Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803),

Primary Holding
Congress does not have the power to pass laws that override the Constitution, such as by expanding the scope of the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction.

For those who have read the details of the complaint; in THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ANALYSIS AND INTERPRETATION, concerning the Investigatory Power of Congress, pages 95-96:

One limitation on the power of inquiry which has been much discussed in the cases concerns the contention that congressional investigations often have no legislative purpose but rather are aimed at achieving results through "exposure" of disapproved persons and activities: "We have no doubt," wrote Chief Justice Warren, "that there is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure." Although some Justices, always in dissent, have attempted to assert limitations in practice based upon this concept, the majority of Justices has adhered to the traditional precept that courts will not inquire into legislators' motives but will look only to the question of power. "So long as Congress acts in pursuance of its constitutional power, the Judiciary lacks authority to intervene on the basis of the motives which spurred the exercise of that power."

As requested in a comment, I have added some references to cases (or controversies) involving original jurisdiction.

The judicial power extends to controversies between two or more states and the Supreme Court was given original jurisdiction in which a State shall be Party. Some of those cases are:

Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 37 U.S. 657 (1838), the court was asked to ascertain and establish the northern boundary between the states [...].

Nebraska v. Iowa, 143 U.S. 359 (1892), the Court was asked to fix the boundary due to changes in the path of the Missouri River.

New Jersey v. New York, 283 U.S. 336 (1931), The State of New Jersey sued the State of New York and the City of New York to enjoin them from diverting water from nonnavigable tributaries of the Delaware for the purpose of increasing the water supply of the City. Pennsylvania intervened to protect its interest in the river.

And, New Jersey v. New York, 523 U.S. 767 (1998) ownership of Ellis Island, as mentioned in the comments.

  • 2
    This is a very nice answer! To make a complicated issue clearer, could you add an example of a case that went directly to the Supreme Court?
    – divibisan
    May 14, 2019 at 21:30
  • 3
    New Jersey vs New York (1998). A case to settle a dispute over jurisdiction of Ellis Island. These cases are known as "original jurisdiction". May 14, 2019 at 21:44
  • 5
    I don’t think that adding additional cases for which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction would require a constitutional amendment, because of the final clause in the part you quoted, which explicitly allows Congress to make exceptions.
    – prl
    May 15, 2019 at 2:58
  • 1
    @prl Reading it very strictly, it only seems as if Congress could limit by exceptions where exactly the Supreme Court has appelate jurisdiction. But I guess Congress emphatically cannot do that, which would mean your interpretation has to be the correct one.
    – sgf
    May 15, 2019 at 13:22
  • 2
    In principle Congress' ability to modify the original jurisdiction of SCOTUS has been settled since Marbury v. Madison, wherein the court found a law granting them original jurisdiction over the case before them to be unconstitutional: that they can only have original jurisdiction over those cases specified in the constitution. May 16, 2019 at 7:57

Remember that SCOTUS is an appeals court, not a regular district court. You don't generally file with SCOTUS at first, you start in a Federal district (or state court), then work your way up.

The purpose of a district court is to establish things before the court as a whole (for both the trail, and any appeals courts). This is where you generally get all the "grunt work" out of the way. You need to present arguments, evidence, prior law, etc. All of this is cumbersome. You also argue before a single judge at this level, and may or may not have a jury.

When you move into appeals things change.

The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.

Appeals circuits and SCOTUS are there to adjudicate if

  • A mistake was made at trial
  • A precedent needs to be set
  • You have conflicting rulings

SCOTUS is very picky on what cases it will and won't take, often based on the the precedent set in the case. In the aforementioned United States v. Nixon, the question wasn't about Nixon himself, but if a sitting President could ignore a Federal Court subpoena (in this case for the Watergate Tapes) by invoking Executive Privilege to avoid embarrassment or cover criminal conduct. SCOTUS ruled that he could not. While it likely would have lead to Nixon's impeachment, the full case about Watergate was not in question, only this part of the process (turning over evidence due to a subpoena).

  • 1
    There are some cases that must be heard by a three-judge panel in district court (notably apportionment cases).
    – phoog
    May 15, 2019 at 15:16
  • 4
    I don't think this is a misconception of the OP; given the Supreme Court does have original jurisdiction over disagreements between states, for example, it seems an entirely reasonable question to ask why they also don't have original jurisdiction over disagreements between branches of government.
    – Joe
    May 15, 2019 at 17:49
  • SCOTUS also has original jurisdiction over ambassadors etc., but in actual practice "shares" it with lower courts (granted jurisdiction by law), where such cases actually always start. So one might also ask why cases between states aren't started in a lower court. And in fact some of them do, as SCOTUS has placed stringent conditions on when it's original jurisdiction can be invoked. The short of it being "only when strictly necessary". And I think that's the overarching historical rule for where SCOTUS has original jurisdiction: only when strictly necessary. May 16, 2019 at 10:52

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