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What Kinds of Cases Can Federal Courts Decide?

The United States has state and federal courts, each with the power to handle certain types of cases. State courts focus on local subject matters, often involving state laws and local matters. Meanwhile, federal courts hear disputes often involving federal regulations, the U.S. Constitution, and broader national issues.

This article examines the types of cases in which federal courts are empowered to decide and explains their role in the federal government.

What Are the Court Systems in the United States?

There are two parallel systems of courts in the United States: federal and state courts. State courts primarily handle a wide range of cases, many of which directly impact the lives of many residents. For instance, civil actions involving traffic violations and family law matters such as alimony and child custody. Meanwhile, federal courts adjudicate issues involving:

  • Cases that deal with the constitutionality of laws under the U.S. Constitution
  • Cases involving U.S. treaties
  • Cases involving ambassadors, consuls, and public ministers
  • Cases resolving disputes between two or more states
  • Bankruptcy cases
  • Admiralty law cases
  • Habeas Corpus Issues

Kinds of Cases Heard by Federal Courts

In the big picture, federal courts can only decide limited types of cases:

  • Federal Questions: Federal courts have jurisdiction to hear cases that raise federal questions, particularly those involving the federal government, the U.S. Constitution, or other federal laws.
  • Diversity Jurisdiction: Federal courts also hear cases between residents of "diverse citizenship" wherein the issue in dispute meets the set dollar amount. These cases are often between residents of two states, and the amount in controversy is $75,000 or more. Federal courts can also hear cases between two people with land grants from different states or between the states themselves. States can sue each other for several reasons, but often, these cases are over rights to land or waterways. When this happens, states can skip the trial court and go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Treaties and Diplomats: Particular cases that affect or could affect the U.S.'s standing with other countries, including cases addressing treaties with other countries. This includes cases involving ambassadors and public ministers in the U.S. and abroad.
  • U.S. Government Cases: For example, if you wanted to sue the FBI, you would file suit in federal court, but if you wanted to sue your local sheriff, your state court would take that case.
  • Admiralty: Cases that involve navigable water bodies in and around the U.S., including the oceans, rivers, and great lakes.

The federal courts only decide a few cases, as reflected by the list above. Matters related to family laws, including divorcechild custodyprobate of wills, guardianship proceedings, and most real estate cases, are decided through state courts. When you bring a case, it is more likely that it will end up in state court. If you bring it to the wrong court, the court could dismiss the case or remand it to the proper venue. An attorney specializing in litigation can help you decide where to bring your case.

What Does the Federal Court Consist Of?

Federal courts consist of:

U.S. District Courts

The general trial courts of the federal court system are the U.S. District Courts. These courts handle both criminal and civil cases. The district courts are also where parties first file their pleadings. In the United States, there are 94 district courts. Each of these courts is located in a particular geographic area, and each state has at least one district court. Larger states often have more than one district court.

Federal Appellate Courts

Also known as the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Federal Appellate Courts review district court orders and decisions of special federal courts and other federal agencies. There are 13 Federal Appellate Courts throughout the country. Twelve of them act as circuit courts and cover three to five states. The 13th appellate court has jurisdiction over specific subject matters such as trade and patents.

United States Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest in the country. Its primary role is to act as the final arbiter of cases decided by lower courts. It also has the original jurisdiction to decide cases involving diplomatic representatives or where states are a party to a legal action. The Supreme Court's decisions are binding on other federal and state courts, particularly on questions related to the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court comprises nine justices, eight associate justices, and one chief justice. The Congress sets the number of Justices, which has changed over time.

Other Specialized Federal Courts

Besides the courts mentioned above, the U.S. legal system has specialized federal courts. Included among them are:

  • U.S. Tax Courts
  • U.S. Court of Federal Claims
  • U.S. Bankruptcy Courts
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
  • U.S. Court of International Trade

Seek Legal Advice From A Litigation and Appeals Attorney

Navigating the federal court system and understanding the intricate court rules can be daunting. Fortunately, you do not have to face these legal challenges alone. Consulting with a litigation and appeals attorney can ensure that a court of appropriate jurisdiction handles your case.

litigation and appeals attorney can also help you understand your legal rights and ensure that your cause of action follows the required due process. They can also give you invaluable insights into case laws relevant to your legal issue. If you are facing a legal challenge, do not hesitate to seek the legal advice of an attorney near you.

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