What the Federal Courts Do
How is a federal court different from a state court?

There are two kinds of courts in this country--federal courts and state courts.

Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution by Congress to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. 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).

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

Federal court jurisdiction 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.
State courts, in contrast, 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 law cases.

In many 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 involving federal laws can be tried only in federal court, but most criminal cases involve violations of state law and are tried in state 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.

Federal courts may also 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. 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 case that only involves a state law can be brought only in state court.
    Appeals for review of actions by federal administrative agencies are also federal civil cases. Suppose, for example, that the Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to a paper mill to discharge water used in its milling process into the Scenic River, over the objection of area residents. The residents could ask a federal court of appeals to review the agency’s decision.


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