Federal courts differ from state-level courts in a number of different ways, particularly when it comes to what types of cases they can make rulings on. Federal courts have a much more narrow jurisdiction than state courts, and they are only authorized to hear specific types of cases.
Federal courts have jurisdiction (i.e. the authority to hear cases) in certain situation, 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 or treaties
- The case involves ambassadors or public ministers
- The case involves a dispute between two or more states
- The case involves citizens of different states and the amount in questions exceeds $75,000
- The case involves bankruptcy, copyright, patent, or maritime/admiralty law
Whether or not the crime is a federal one will depend on the circumstances of the case. As a general rule of thumb, federal courts usually handle a case if it involves multiple states, a federal system (such as the U.S. Postal Service), federal property (such as a national park or military base), or the Constitution.
State courts, on the other hand, have broad jurisdiction to hear a wide variety of cases. On any given day, you can walk into a local courthouse and hear everything from DUI and murder cases to credit card fraud and excessive parking tickets. State courts typically handle all divorce and child custody matters; probate and inheritance issues; real estate issues; juvenile offenses; and the majority of criminal cases, contract disputes, traffic violations, and personal injury lawsuits.
Under federal law, certain conditions must be met for a federal court to exercise jurisdiction:
- Federal courts can exercise only judicial powers. In layman’s terms, this means a federal court cannot try to correct a problem on its own initiative or try to answer hypothetical legal questions. Federal courts can only resolve actual legal disputes.
- The plaintiff must have legal standing. The person bringing the case before the court must have been legally harmed or aggrieved in some way by the defendant. People cannot bring cases to federal court simply because they are displeased with a certain law or government action. In other words, you must have enough direct stake in the action or law to challenge it in federal court.
The court must be authorized to hear the case. Under the Constitution and federal laws, the court must have authorization to hear the case and make a ruling. The U.S. Courts website puts it this way: “The case must present a category of dispute that the law in question was designed to address, and it must be a complaint that the court has the power to remedy.” There are no purely “symbolic” cases; a federal court can only hear a case if it has the ability to grant relief to the plaintiff in some way.
- The case cannot be “moot.” The case must present an actual, ongoing problem for the court to resolve.