The Difference Between State and Federal Courts

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Article By: Marc Newman

A Leading Commercial Litigation Attorney in Michigan

The Difference Between State and Federal Courts

Published on: March 15, 2020


Clients often ask about the difference between state and federal courts. The primary distinction is that state and local courts are authorized to hear cases involving the laws and citizens of their state or city, while federal courts decide lawsuits between citizens of different states, cases against the United States, and cases involving specific federal laws.


US Federal Courts

The federal court hears your case if:

  • The United States is a party,
  • The case involves violations of the U.S. Constitution, treaties or federal laws,
  • It is a legal dispute between citizens of different states or foreign citizens,
  • It is a bankruptcy, copyright, patent and maritime law case, or
  • It’s a criminal matter listed in the U.S. Code.

The United States Supreme Court is the only Federal court mentioned in the U. S. Constitution. Article III provides that “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”

Congress, over time, has created federal district courts, where trials take place and federal circuit courts of appeal to hear the appeals from the district courts. While there are fewer federal decisions, they are often of national importance. The U. S. Supreme Court is the last stop on the judicial journey. It doesn’t hear every case that comes its way, but decides which cases to review and decide. The legal term for the order to review a decision of a lower court is granting certiorari often shortened to “granting cert.”

Federal judges are appointed and, per Article III of our Constitution, “shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.” In other words, they’re appointed for life and get paid for their work. Federal Magistrate Judges are appointed for limited terms and typically hear disputes involving discovery and other subsidiary issues.

State Courts

State or local courts hear:

  • Cases concerning laws passed by state legislature or local authorities,
  • Most family law cases, personal injury suits, contract disputes, traffic violations, and
  • Criminal cases.

State courts handle a far larger number of cases and have more contact with the public than the federals courts do. The state courts are three tier courts with a trial level court, an appellate court and a supreme court. The number of judges that hear a case varies from state to state, but most trial courts have one judge while appellate courts have three to five. Most State Supreme Courts have 7 or 9 justices. State court judges are either appointed or elected. In Michigan we elect our judges.

There are generally two trial level courts. The Michigan district courts, for example, decide landlord-tenant, small claims, traffic violations, civil cases with claims up to $25,000 and all misdemeanor criminal cases (generally, cases where the accused, if found guilty, cannot be sentenced to more than one year in the county jail).

Michigan’s circuit courts have the broadest powers. The circuit court hears all civil cases with claims of more than $25,000, all felony or more serious criminal cases, family law cases, probate matters, juvenile delinquency and cases involving the state constitution. In addition, the circuit court hears cases appealed from the other trial courts or administrative agencies.

Each state has the appellate courts that hear appeals from the trial courts. The number of appeals courts varies with the size of the state and the number of cases. There are 24 Michigan appellate judges who hear cases state-wide, although they are elected or appointed from one of four districts-Detroit, Troy, Grand Rapids, and Lansing. Hearings are also scheduled in the Upper Peninsula in the spring and fall. Michigan, like most states, has one Supreme Court that hears appeals from the appellate courts.

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