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Federal vs. State Courts - Key Differences

There are two kinds of courts in this country -- state courts and federal courts. Following is a discussion of key differences between the state and federal court systems.

Establishment of State and Federal Courts

State and local courts are established by a state (within states there are also local courts that are established by cities, counties, and other municipalities, which we are including in the general discussion of state courts). Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress.

Jurisdiction of State and Federal Courts

The differences between federal and state courts are defined mainly by jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear.

State courts have broad jurisdiction, so the cases individual citizens are most likely to be involved in -- such as robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts, and family disputes -- are usually tried in state courts. The only cases state courts are not allowed to hear are lawsuits against the United States and those involving certain specific federal laws: criminal, antitrust, bankruptcy, patent, copyright, and some maritime cases.

Federal court jurisdiction, by contrast, is limited to the types of cases listed in the Constitution and specifically provided for by Congress. For the most part, federal courts only hear:

  • Cases in which the United States is a party;
  • Cases involving violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction);
  • Cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction); and
  • Bankruptcy, copyright, patent, and maritime law cases.

In some cases, both federal and state courts have jurisdiction. This allows parties to choose whether to go to state court or to federal court.

Criminal Cases in State and Federal Court

Most criminal cases involve violations of state law and are tried in state court, but criminal cases involving federal laws can be tried only in federal court. We all know, for example, that robbery is a crime, but what law says it is a crime? By and large, state laws, not federal laws, make robbery a crime. There are only a few federal laws about robbery, such as the law that makes it a federal crime to rob a bank whose deposits are insured by a federal agency. Examples of other federal crimes are bringing illegal drugs into the country or across state lines, and use of the U.S. mails to swindle consumers. Crimes committed on federal property (such as national parks or military reservations) are also prosecuted in federal court.

State Laws and the Federal Constitution

Federal courts may hear cases concerning state laws if the issue is whether the state law violates the federal Constitution. Suppose a state law forbids slaughtering animals outside of certain limited areas. A neighborhood association brings a case in state court against a defendant who sacrifices goats in his backyard. When the court issues an order (called an injunction) forbidding the defendant from further sacrifices, the defendant challenges the state law in federal court as an unconstitutional infringement of his religious freedom.

Some kinds of conduct are illegal under both federal and state laws. For example, federal laws prohibit employment discrimination, and the states have added their own laws which also forbid employment discrimination. A person can go to federal or state court to bring a case under the federal law or both the federal and state laws. A state-law-only case can be brought only in state court.

Courts and Caseloads

State courts handle by far the larger number of cases, and have more contact with the public than federal courts do. Although the federal courts hear far fewer cases than the state courts, the cases they do hear tend more often to be of national importance. Think of the court cases you have heard the most about. Most are U.S. Supreme Court decisions, because the federal laws they uphold and the federal rights they protect extend to everyone in this country. When state cases are known outside their local area, it's often because of the identity of the parties: for example, the O.J. Simpson case was widely followed, although the outcome would not affect the millions of television viewers.

Cases Filed Annually:

State Court: 30,000,0000 cases filed
Federal Court: 1,000,000 cases filed

Number of judgeships authorized:

State Court: Approximately 30,000 judgeships
Federal Court: Approximately 1.700 judgeships

From the Federal Judicial Center

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