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What Kinds of Cases Can Federal Courts Decide?

What are the Federal Courts?

There are two parallel systems of courts in the United States: federal courts and state courts. Each system typically hears different cases to ensure that each court decides the law that it knows best. State courts, for the most part, interpret state law and tend to hear the types of cases that affect the personal lives of many residents, such as probate, family law, and most criminal law. Federal courts consist of district courts, appellate courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court, and hear many different kinds of cases.

Kinds of Cases Heard by Federal Courts

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

  • Federal Questions: Federal Courts can decide any case that considers federal law. This includes constitutional law, federal crimes, some military law, intellectual property (patents, copyrights, etc.), securities laws, and any other case involving a law that the U.S. Congress has passed.
  • Diversity: Cases between residents of two different states can go to federal court as long as there is more than $75,000 in dispute. Federal courts can also hear cases between two people who have land grants from different states, or between the states themselves. States can sue each other for a number of 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: 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 will take that case.
  • Admiralty: Cases that involve navigable water bodies in and around the U.S., including the oceans, rivers, and great lakes.

As you can see, the list above is limited, and federal courts do not decide many cases, including some of the most common types. Family law, including divorces and custody; probate, including wills and 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, and if you bring it in the wrong court, it could be dismissed or removed to the proper venue. An attorney that specializes in litigation can help you decide where to bring your case.

FindLaw.com's section on litigation has more information about when and how to go to court.

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