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Federal Court v. State Court - Part I

In the United States, we have two different court systems - state and federal. There are a number of similarities and differences between the two. While federal laws apply to everyone living in the United States, state laws apply only to the citizens of that state, or in some cases citizens visiting or working in a state. So for example, the personal injury laws that exist in Virginia do not apply to citizens of North Carolina. However, if a citizen of Virginia injured a North Carolina citizen while in North Carolina, then that citizen would be subject to North Carolina’s personal injury laws. 

Jurisdiction refers to the types of cases that a court can hear. Jurisdiction is what determines if your case will be heard in federal court or state court. Federal jurisdiction is more limited than state jurisdiction. 

In Federal Court v. State Court - Part I, we will examine the federal court system. 

Federal Court System

The federal courts get their jurisdiction from the Constitution and federal laws; this is referred to as original jurisdiction. Federal courts can hear both civil and criminal cases. Federal court cases include:

  • claims involving the United States, where the United States is a party to the case. If you see a case captioned United States v. Jones, then you can assume that the case is being brought in federal court.
  • claims that involve strictly federal law. Immigration, social security and bankruptcy are examples of matters governed by federal law. 
  • claims involving the U.S. Constitution. Violations of constitutional rights claims include freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Constitutional rights can only be violated by the government or someone acting on behalf of the government. 
  • cases where the parties are citizens of two different states and damages are greater than $75,000. This is referred to as diversity jurisdiction and while these are two of the main components for diversity jurisdiction, there may be other requirements, and it is important to talk to an attorney to see if diversity jurisdiction applies in your case. 
  • cases where copyright or patent issues are at stake
  • claims involving federal crimes. Federal crimes include mail fraud, kidnapping, money laundering, tax evasion, and crossing state lines with illegal drugs.

Within the federal court system there are 3 different court levels - district court, circuit court and the Supreme Court. 

District Courts. These are the federal court system’s trial courts. If you have a federal court claim, you will file it at the district court level. There are three district courts in North Carolina - the United States District Court for the Eastern District, the United States District Court for the Middle District and the United States District Court for the Western District. Charlotte, North Carolina is located in the Western District. 

Trial court judges are appointed to life terms by the President of the United States. They must be confirmed by the Senate. There are more than 670 district court judges currently in our federal system.  

Circuit Courts. These are the appeal courts of the federal system. Once a case has been decided at the district court, if either party is unhappy with the outcome (and assuming there is an appealable issue), then the case is appealed to circuit court. There are currently twelve circuit courts, including the District of Columbia, and each circuit covers 3 or more states. In the less populated western United States, for example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit covers 10 states plus Guam. North Carolina is part of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, along with Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and South Carolina. 

Circuit court judges are also appointed to a life term by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. Since this in an appeals court, not a trial court, parties file briefs with the court arguing as to why the district court’s decision should be upheld or reversed. The circuit court then schedules “oral argument” in which the attorneys for the parties present the arguments contained in the briefs and answer any questions that a judge may have. Typically, the circuit court is made up of a panel of three judges. 

Supreme Court. The highest federal court is the Supreme Court of the United States. Unlike other courts, the Supreme Court typically hears only appeals. Meaning that before a case will be heard by the Supreme Court, it must have been heard by at least one, if not more, lower level court. As the highest court in the United States, cases heard at the Supreme Court level are not appealable. The Supreme Court’s decision is final. Although the Supreme Court is a federal court, they do have the authority to hear appeals from the highest level of state courts in addition to hearing appeals from federal courts. 

Supreme Court judges are referred to as “justices,” and like the other federal court judges, they are appointed to a life term by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Unlike most other judges, their confirmation hearings are often very public. 

Who Decides. It is up to the plaintiff to decide in which court system to bring a claim, if there is a question of where to bring it. For example, personal injury cases are governed by state, not federal, law so typically a North Carolina plaintiff would bring a personal injury case in the North Carolina State Court system. However, if diversity jurisdiction applies (the defendant is a citizen of a different state and the damages claimed are more than $75,000), the plaintiff could choose to file a claim in federal court. In a situation where federal courts have jurisdiction, if a plaintiff files in state court the defendant could then choose to “remove” the case to federal court. 

Let Our Charlotte Attorneys Review Your Case

The Charlotte, North Carolina based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC  are experienced attorneys. They can advise you if your case can be filed in state or federal court, and discuss the pros and cons of where to file based on the facts of your case. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation. 

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