The Difference Between State and Federal Courts

State and federal courts are similar in many ways, but they have very different structures. Many legal professionals gain experience in both systems, while others spend their entire career in a single court. Joe Tacopina criminal lawyer, a former New York prosecutor, explains the difference in an online slide presentation.

According to Tacopina, the federal courts have little variation. They are directly governed by the United States Supreme Court and laws that are written into the Constitution. Although state courts abide by the same laws, they are also subject to individual state laws.

United States Federal Courts

In the United States, the federal judiciary is one of three branches of federal government with co-equal powers. Federal courts have three levels: the Supreme Court, appellate courts and district courts. The district courts are general trial courts, and appellate courts hear appeals from the lower courts.

There is no right of appeal to a Supreme Court decision. The nation’s highest court hears cases between the state courts, or between the federal government and a state. Federal judges are appointed by the President of the United States, with Senate approval. They usually serve until retirement or death, unless they receive an impeachment or conviction.

The State Court System

State courts handle most civil and criminal cases, and they are supervised by federal courts. Most cases begin in trial courts where suits are filed. If they proceed to hearings or trials, attorneys present evidence in court. Trials are held only after extensive pre-trial legal proceedings, which usually lead to default judgments or agreed resolutions that are settled before trial.

Most state courts are located in county courthouses. When a litigant – plaintiff or defendant – is unsatisfied with a lower court decision, he or she may appeal it. In most cases, a state appellate court will review the appeal. If the decision does not satisfy the litigant, he or she can appeal to the state supreme court, which is usually located in the state capital.

Most states have limited jurisdiction courts, which a magistrate or justice of the peace (JP) presides over. These courts hear criminal arraignments, petty offenses and small civil cases. Many large American cities have city courts that hear traffic offenses, city ordinance violations, misdemeanor cases and some civil cases. County courts, probate courts, juvenile courts and others also hear limited jurisdiction cases.

Limited jurisdiction courts are also called inferior jurisdiction courts. General jurisdiction courts, known as superior jurisdiction courts, are default trial courts. They can hear any case that is not required to be heard in a limited jurisdiction court first. Criminal cases and most large civil cases are heard in general jurisdiction courts. Limited jurisdiction appeals are sent to these state trial courts.

Unlike federal judges, most state court judges are elected officials. Howe ever, governors may appoint judges to fill vacancies in the state judiciary. Most state judges are attorneys with some political involvement. A disproportionate number previously served as prosecuting attorneys, and some were criminal defense attorneys or trial lawyers. Many limited jurisdiction judges are non-lawyers who are elected to their positions.

Relationship Between State and Federal Courts

The relationship between state and federal courts is complicated. When state law conflicts with federal law, the federal law overrides state law. However, federal courts are not always superior to state courts. According to Tacopina and others, state and federal courts are parallel courts with different structures and jurisdiction.

The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution limits the federal courts from exercising jurisdiction in some state court cases. Federal courts must also defer state law interpretations to the state courts. For the most part, federal courts do not review state court decisions in civil cases, and they provide little review of criminal cases. However, all death penalty cases in the state courts receive substantial review by the federal courts.

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