The U.S. court system is split up into two distinct sections: state and federal courts. These two types of courts vary in a number of important ways, including how cases are handled, which types of cases are accepted, and the sentences they are authorized to give. Here is a look at the key differences between state-level and federal courts:
Jurisdiction, or the cases a court is authorized to hear, is one of the biggest differences between state and federal courts. State courts have a much broader jurisdiction, which allows them to hear a wide array of cases; robberies, broken contracts, personal injury cases, traffic violations, family issues, drug crimes, and more are all addressed in state courts.
Federal courts, on the other hand, only have jurisdiction in certain situations, such as when:
- The United States is a party in the case
- The case involves a violation of the U.S. Constitution
- The case involves a violation of federal laws
- The case involves citizens of different states and the amount in questions exceeds $75,000
- The case involves bankruptcy, copyright, patent, or maritime law
Figuring out whether the case should be tried in state or federal court will depend on the circumstances of your unique case. As a general rule of thumb, the federal court system will have jurisdiction when the case involves (1) more than one state, (2) some sort of federal system (such as the U.S. Postal Service), (3) occurs on federal property, such as a national park or military base, or (4) involves a violation of the U.S. Constitution or other federal law. In certain cases, both state and federal courts may have jurisdiction; in these cases, the parties involved can choose whether to pursue state or federal court.
Since state courts handle such a wide variety of cases, they typically have a much heavier caseload. There are approximately 30 million cases filed every year in state court, compared to only 1 million in federal court. Therefore, state-level cases may take several months or even years to run their course, while federal cases tend to follow a more streamlined path. And while federal courts hear fewer cases than state courts, the cases they hear tend to have national significance.
When tried in federal court, crimes carry much harsher sentences. For example, say someone was arrested for trafficking heroin in California. Under Health and Safety Code 11352, the accused would face a maximum of five years in county jail, fines, and probation.
On the other hand, say someone was arrested for trafficking heroin (a Schedule I drug) across several state lines into California. If tried in federal court, the accused would face a minimum of 5 years and a maximum of 40 years in prison—assuming the amount was not more than 1 kilogram, it was only the person’s first offense, and it did not lead to serious injury or death, all of which come with sentencing enhancements.