How the federal and state court systems differ

How the federal and state court systems differ

On Behalf of | Nov 7, 2023 | Criminal Defense

The United States legal system consists of two distinct court systems: the federal court system and the state court system. These systems serve different purposes and handle various types of cases.

The Department of Justice reports there are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts and one Supreme Court in the federal criminal justice system.  Understanding how these courts differ from those at the state level can be beneficial when a case lands in federal court.


Jurisdiction is one of the most significant distinctions between federal and state courts. Federal courts have limited jurisdiction, which means they can only hear cases that involve specific federal laws, constitutional issues or disputes between parties from different states. Conversely, state courts possess general jurisdiction, allowing them to hear a broad spectrum of cases, including criminal, civil, family and probate matters.

Source of law

Another critical difference is the source of the law that each court system follows. Federal courts primarily interpret and apply federal laws and the U.S. Constitution. They are responsible for enforcing federal statutes uniformly throughout the country. In contrast, state courts deal primarily with state laws and constitutions. They handle a wide range of cases related to state regulations, governance and disputes.

Types of cases

The types of cases heard in federal and state courts also differ significantly. Federal courts handle cases involving federal crimes, bankruptcy, patents, immigration and issues involving the U.S. government. They also deal with cases that cross state lines. State courts handle cases related to traffic violations, personal injury, family matters like divorce and child custody and criminal offenses under state law.

Judge selection

The appointment and selection of judges in these court systems are quite different. The president appoints federal judges, which the Senate confirms. They serve lifetime terms. This system provides stability and insulates judges from political influence. In contrast, voters typically elect state court judges, although the specific selection method can vary from state to state.

Procedures and rules

Procedures and rules in federal and state courts also exhibit differences. Federal court procedures are typically more formal and structured, and they rigorously enforce the rules of evidence. State court procedures may vary significantly based on individual state rules, making them more flexible and adaptable to local needs.

Appellate process

One more key distinction is the appellate process. The U.S. Court of Appeals hears appeals of federal cases. These cases could also land in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. In state court systems, appeals go to the state’s appellate courts and may or may not progress to the state’s highest court, which varies from state to state.

The federal court system and state court system in the United States are distinct entities, each with its own jurisdiction, laws and procedures. Understanding these differences ensures that those facing charges understand how to navigate the correct system.