Difference between State and Federal Courts

By: | Updated: Feb-14, 2018

The founding fathers of the United States, in an effort to limit the power wielded by the federal government, made sure that it can only rule on certain kinds of cases. State courts were given jurisdiction over a huge chunk of other cases. Who holds more authority? Let’s highlight the differences and let you decide.

Summary Table

State CourtsFederal Courts
Established by the U.S. Constitution and state laws.Established by Congress by virtue of the Constitution.
Have jurisdiction over cases involving state cases and most criminal and contract cases.Have jurisdiction over cases involving federal law and the Constitution.
Judges are elected or appointed.Judges are selected by the President pending the Senate’s approval.



State courts in the U.S. are created as mandated by the Constitution and the state laws itself. These state courts have jurisdiction over the majority of civil and criminal cases that are in violation of state laws. Jurisdiction is defined as cases a court is allowed to try. Cases such as traffic violations, family disputes, robberies, contract cases, tort cases, and family law (e.g., divorce, adoption) are commonly tried in state courts.

These state courts are generally presided over by elected judges. The methods of appointing state court judges vary, and one could usually be a distinguished attorney who has some political background, or pursuing another career on the bench. However, there are some state court judges in small towns who are non-lawyers, and are elected into position. Judges presiding over state courts usually receive less compensation compared to federal court judges. State court judges employ less staff but work on larger caseloads.

Headed by the Supreme Court of the United States, federal courts are established as mandated by the Constitution and carried out by Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court is an appellate court that holds the prerogative to choose cases to hear and is the court of last resort. Other federal courts are as established by Congress are the U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. Court of Claims, U.S. District Courts, U.S. Court of International Trade, and U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

The federal court system handles cases that violate the U.S. Constitution and federal laws. It can also hear cases involving the U.S., or bankruptcy, patent, copyright, and U.S. maritime cases. Other cases that can be tried in federal courts are transporting illegal drugs into the country and across state borders. If a crime is committed within federal property (e.g., military reservations, national parks) it can be tried in a federal court as well. Note that federal courts may also handle cases dealing with state laws that are deemed unconstitutional.

State Court vs Federal Court

Now, what’s the difference between state and federal courts? One thing to remember is that jurisdiction draws the line that separates these two types of U.S. courts. While state courts usually handle cases that violate state laws, federal courts have jurisdiction over issues involving the Constitution and legislation passed by Congress. State courts are created by the Constitution and the state laws. Federal courts, on the other hand, are established by the Constitution and the U.S. Congress.

State courts have a broader scope, so they handle more cases. The federal courts handle fewer cases, but they are usually of more national importance. State courts generally handle family law, contract cases, most criminal cases and other probate issues. Federal law commonly deals with cases involving the constitutionality of a law. Cases involving disputes between states, foreign treaties, and bankruptcy laws are also examples of cases that can be heard in federal courts.

A state court judge can either be elected or appointed to preside for a number of years of or even for life. A federal court judge is nominated by the President, pending an approval by the Senate. A federal judge can rule for life given good behavior, but they can be impeached by Congress.

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