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Federal vs. State Courts: Key Differences

The United States has two court systems, state and federal. This article discusses some important differences between the state and federal court systems.

Establishment of State and Federal Courts

The U.S. Constitution established the Supreme Court, the only court specifically mentioned in that document. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to create lower courts as necessary. As states came into being, they wrote their own constitutions and granted themselves the power to establish state and municipal courts.

The state system mirrors the federal system. Both court systems have trial courts, usually known as circuit courts or district courts. Both systems have appellate courts. The state supreme courts have the final say over all state rulings. These are the "courts of last resort" for state matters.

The U.S. Supreme Court hears rulings from federal judges. It is the highest court in the judicial system and makes final decisions on all appeals from lower courts.

Jurisdiction of State and Federal Courts

Jurisdiction refers to the types of cases a court may hear. State courts have general jurisdiction, meaning they have authority over all kinds of cases. Federal courts have limited jurisdiction and only hear matters involving federal questions and constitutional matters.

State courts have jurisdiction over state laws. Criminal cases and disputes between residents of the same state are heard in the state where the incident occurred. Contract casesfamily law matters, and traffic violations are all state cases.

Federal courts handle matters involving federal law. Federal crimes and civil lawsuits against the government go to federal district court. Other cases that must be heard in federal court include:

In some cases, both federal and state courts have jurisdiction. Parties may choose which court will hear their case.

Criminal Cases in State and Federal Courts

Criminal statutes are almost exclusively state statutes. The state court system prosecutes crimes on behalf of citizens. The U.S. Government prosecutes individuals who commit crimes against the federal government.

For example, robbery is a crime against a person, making it a state crime. Robbing a mail carrier is a federal crime since it involves a government agency. Other federal crimes include:

Sometimes, federal courts take jurisdiction to avoid confusion in state courts. In cases that cross state lines, such as kidnapping, federal courts have jurisdiction, so there is no issue of extradition or precedence.

State Laws and the Federal Constitution

Federal courts take cases when the issue concerns state laws that may violate the U.S. Constitution. State laws that limit religion, speech, and other fundamental rights are subject to review by the Supreme Court. These laws must pass a type of review called strict scrutiny. When a state attempts to limit a fundamental right, it may do so, but the law must be narrowly tailored to a specific government interest.

The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah was one such case. The church practiced Santeria, an animistic religion that sacrificed live chickens. The city council passed a law prohibiting all forms of religious animal sacrifice, but the law was worded to restrict only the Santeria church. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this violated the Santeria worshipers' rights.

State governments may enact more restrictive laws than the Constitution and federal law, but not less. For instance, the Family and Medical Leave Act is a federal law regarding employment leave. The FMLA applies to businesses with more than 50 employees. Some states have their own medical leave acts that apply to fewer employees. Employees can go to federal or state court for a federal law violation. They can only go to state court for a state law violation.

Courts and Caseloads

State courts handle more cases and interact with the public than federal courts. Federal court cases are more likely to impact national affairs, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions extend to everyone in this country. Well-known state cases usually involve famous individuals or notorious crimes, such as the O.J. Simpson case.

Criminal and Civil Cases Filed Annually:

Number of judgeships authorized:

  • State Court: Approximately 30,000 judgeships
  • Federal Court: Approximately 950 judgeships
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