State Court Cases
The vast majority of both civil and criminal cases are heard in state courts, from major felonies to speeding tickets. Other procedures typically not related to disputes among parties, such as obtaining a marriage license or the probate process for a will, are also handled by state courts. In fact, the only types of cases state courts do not deal with are those involving immigration, bankruptcy, patents, copyrights, and federal criminal cases. FindLaw's section on State Court Cases provides a general primer on state courts, as well as articles on how to determine the venue of your case, the key differences between federal and state courts, and other related information. In this section, you can also find information and links to state probate and family courts.
Differences Between Federal and State Courts
The main difference between federal courts and states courts is jurisdiction, which basically refers to the types of cases a particular court has the authority to hear. State courts generally have broader jurisdiction than federal courts, which is why most individuals deal with state courts. Cases that involve family disputes, misdemeanors, felonies, and traffic violations are all heard by state courts.
The jurisdiction of federal courts, on the other hand, is limited to cases specified by the United States Constitution and Congress. The types of cases that federal courts hear are as follows:
- Cases involving maritime, patent, copyright, immigration, and bankruptcy law
- Cases where the United States is a party
- Cases that involve violations of federal laws or the U.S. Constitution
In addition, if a civil case involves a plaintiff and a defendant who are citizens of different states, and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000, it can be heard in federal court. If both state courts and federal courts have jurisdiction, the parties can choose which court to file their lawsuit in.
Determining Where Your Lawsuit Will Be Heard
Although state court systems vary from state to state, they usually all divide their cases based on the subject matter of the case. Generally speaking, state courts usually set up two sets of trial courts - ones that have limited jurisdiction and ones that have general jurisdiction.
Most states will set up limited jurisdiction courts that will hear only specific kinds of cases, such as probate, family law, or traffic cases. Courts with general jurisdiction hear cases that don't fall within a limited jurisdiction category. Most states also have a separate court for small claims where cases that involve a monetary amount that fall below an amount set by the state are heard.
Hiring an Attorney
While resolving some legal matters do not necessarily require the help of attorney, it's in your best interest to hire a lawyer if your legal matter involves - or potentially may involve - a trial. For instance, if you're charged with a crime, especially if it could result in jail time, it's a good idea to hire a criminal defense attorney. In fact, the United States Constitution guarantees all defendants facing jail time the right to counsel, and if they cannot afford one, they are entitled to a public defender.
Although civil cases do not result in jail time, they can still be complex and result in monetary loss. Usually if would like to sue someone, or are being sued, it's worth the money to hire or at least contact a litigation attorney to discuss your case. Finally, anytime you have questions about matters that are legal in nature, it's a good idea to consult with an attorney because it could save you from trouble down the road.