Key Differences Between Federal and State Court

The United States judicial system can be incredibly complex and sometimes difficult to follow. Many citizens are not aware of the differences between the federal and state courts, or how the criminal justice process will apply to them if they are charged with a crime.

One aspect of the US judicial system that can be especially confusing is the fact that there is more than one court system. The US government is built on the principles of federalism, which means a centralized government shares power and works in concert with state governments to govern democratically. Thus, the laws that govern our society come from both the federal and state levels, which means there are courts at both the federal and state levels to enforce those laws. While the United States federal courts cover the entire country and all United States Territories, there are 50 states, with 50 different court systems!

But what exactly is the difference between state and federal courts? In this blog we will detail some of the key aspects that make these two court systems unique from one another.

Source of Establishment and Authority

While the federal court system, including the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts, was established directly by the Constitution and granted authority by Congress, state courts were established through each individual state’s laws. The United States Constitution grants the authority for states to establish their own courts, but state courts were founded and empowered through state legislation, which is why the rules and procedures of the state courts’ systems can vary from state to state, while the rules and procedures of federal court are uniform no matter where the physical court is located.

Selection of Judges

To be appointed as a federal judge, one must be nominated by the President of the United States, and the nomination must be confirmed by Congress. Federal judges are appointed for life terms and can only be removed for misbehavior by the process of impeachment. State court judges, on the other hand, are selected in a variety of ways depending on the state. They may be selected through elections, appointments, or a combination of these methods. In Florida, attorneys who have been members of the Florida Bar for at least 5 years are eligible for election or appointment to the circuit or county courts (which are trial courts). When a judicial vacancy is created – typically through the retirement or resignation of a sitting judge – the governor appoints an individual to assume that judicial position. However, that new judge must run for election in a forthcoming general election.

To be appointed to the Florida Supreme Court or one of the five District Courts of Appeal (the appeals courts), an attorney must be admitted to practice for at least 10 years. All appeals court judges are appointed by the governor. However, unlike trial court judges, appeals court judges are subject to merit retention elections. Rather than run against an opponent, the voters are asked whether a particular appeals court judge should be retained in office. If the answer is yes, then they retain their position.

One final difference in Florida is that all judges must retire once they reach the age of 70 years old. In my opinion, this provision of the Florida Constitution should be revisited. As the saying goes, “With age comes wisdom.” Mandatory retirement at age 70 denies the citizens of Florida of many wise, experienced judges.  

Jurisdiction and Types of Cases

The biggest difference between state and federal courts is each system’s jurisdiction. The general rule is that if you break a state law your case will be tried in state court, and if you break a federal law your case will be tried in federal court. But in many criminal cases, the line between a federal crime and a state crime can be blurred. Take for example drug trafficking. In those cases, both state and federal laws are violated. Often, if the case is investigated by a federal law enforcement agency, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency, the case will be filed in federal court. Alternatively, if it was handled by a state or city police department, the case will be prosecuted in the state court.

Certain crimes though are uniquely state or federal. For instance, bank fraud is a federal offense, because banks are regulated by the United States government. DUI on the other hand is virtually always a crime which is prosecuted in the state courts, because no federal interests are implicated.

By far, many more cases are heard in state courts than in the federal courts. And federal courts do have exclusive jurisdiction over some specific areas of the law, such as copyright law, maritime law, patent law, and bankruptcy law.

This is just a brief overview of some of the differences between state and federal courts. If you have questions, need more information, or if you have been charged with either a federal or Florida state crime, please contact the Law Offices of Barry M. Wax and let us fight to defend your rights, no matter which court system will be handling your case.

Law Offices of Barry M. Wax