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The difference between federal and state jurisdiction

May 05, 2019 10:56 PM EDT
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The U.S. Constitution, being the highest law in United States by virtue of its authority, establishes a federal system of government in which it shares power between the federal government and the state governments. These systems of government both have their court systems operating within different jurisdictions.

In cases of a conflict between any federal and state law, the United States Constitution and federal laws supersede state laws. State laws are not subordinated to federal law; rather they are corresponding courts with different but overlapping jurisdiction. They both have separate sovereignty, although with the federal court having overriding effect in case of a clash.

The following are characteristics and differences between a federal and a state courts.

Federal Jurisdiction

Article III of the constitution vests the judicial power of the United States in the federal courts. The federal courts are established and empowered to resolve disputes relating to the constitution and laws passed by Congress. The President nominates federal judges while the Senate confirms them. Federal judges hold their office most times for life and they can only be removed for misconduct through Congressional impeachment proceedings.

Federal courts only handle cases listed in the constitution and specifically provided by Congress. Such cases include: cases in which the United States is a party, cases involving violations of the U.S. constitution or federal laws (under federal-question jurisdiction), cases between citizens of different states if the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 (under diversity jurisdiction) and cases involving bankruptcy, copyright, patent and maritime law .

Article III, Section 1 establishes the Supreme Court and gives it power to set up other lower courts. Federal courts are also said to prosecute professional crimes like wage theft, fraud, bribery, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, labor racketeering, embezzlement, cybercrime, copyright infringement, money laundering, identity theft, forgery, bringing illegal drugs into the country or across state lines and use of the U.S. mails to swindle consumers.

Federal courts also have exclusive jurisdiction on federal crimes like customs offenses, offenses involving federal tax matters and crimes of espionage and treason. Although not always used, federal courts can also wield their power of death penalty when necessary.

However federal courts are often too expensive for private individuals to pursue civil matters because they do not have parallel small claims procedure.

The constitutional rights of criminals are mostly contained in federal law, although states courts may apply them. Federal courts can therefore examine if state courts correctly applied these federal rights in cases before it.  Similarly, some constitutional rights of criminals do not exist in state court.

For example, in some states there are no constitutional provisions for a criminal to face indictment before a grand jury prior to his prosecution for a felony or misdemeanor.

State Jurisdiction

The constitution and the laws governing each state usually establish state courts. State courts are mostly common law court, and they apply their respective state laws, procedures and judicial precedent in their state hierarchy to decide cases. They also apply federal laws where needed.

Some states have intermediate court of appeals and state trial courts. Another name for these trial courts are Circuit or District Court. Some states also have courts that handle specific legal issues like probate court (wills and estates), juvenile court and family court.

Selection of state court judges are through election, appointment for a period, appointment for life or a combination of all of these. State judges usually exercise original jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases. The filing of criminal cases in state courts begin in a trial court and evidence is eventually presented if a case proceeds to a hearing or trial. State trial courts are usually located in a courthouse.

State courts prosecute many cases yearly, hence their broad jurisdiction. They also prosecute a greater number of crimes than federal courts. Cases such as robberies, theft, assault, traffic violations, murder, and crimes against property or persons are within the jurisdiction of the state courts.

State courts are the final arbiters of state laws and constitutions. Their interpretation of federal law or of the U.S. Constitution may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may choose to hear or not to hear such cases.

Although state courts have wide power to prosecute different types of crime, they can only investigate and prosecute crimes or acts within their jurisdiction. State courts usually have a high percentage of criminal cases like misdemeanor or petty offenses brought before them, unlike federal courts. For example, in Colorado, in 2002, there were approximately 40 criminal trials in federal court and there were 1,898 criminal trials (excluding hundreds of quasi-criminal trials in juvenile cases, municipal cases and infraction cases) in state courts.

In light of the above, federal and state courts differ in terms of jurisdiction, appointment of judicial officers, structure and caseload.

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