What Is a Dual Court System?

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In the United States, cases can be tried in either state or federal court depending on the issue. Federal courts are considered to have limited jurisdiction; in other words, federal judges are allowed to try only certain cases, unlike state court judges that have broader authority.

How Does the Federal Court System Work in America?

As federal courts are considered to have "limited jurisdiction," not every case can be tried in a federal court. From the start, parties must show that they can meet certain requirements, or a federal judge will dismiss their case. Parties have to show that the case involves a federal law or involves parties from different states, and that the damages sought are more than a certain amount. Some special federal courts have even more limited scope, such as those that address only immigration or taxes.

Cases usually begin in district courts, where motions are heard and trials may occur. If a party disagrees with a federal judge's ruling, under some circumstances, that party can ask an appellate court to review the district court judge's ruling. Not all orders from a federal judge are instantly appealable. If a party further disagrees with the appeals' court judges' ruling, the party can ask that the Supreme Court hear the case by petitioning for review.

Most federal judges are selected by the President of the United States who then submits those nominations to Congress for approval. Most federal judges are appointed for life terms, meaning they can be removed (or impeached) only for bad behavior. They cannot be removed from the bench for writing opinions about the law or making rulings that the President or other government officials dislike.

Read More: Federal & State Court Similarities

Why Does the United States Have a Dual Court System?

At the time that the U.S. Constitution was drafted, officials were concerned that the federal courts would have too much power when it came to judicial matters. To maintain balance, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution created a system in which power is shared between the state and federal courts. Further, the drafters were more concerned about the power federal judges might have over individuals, and less about who might hear questions about the interpretation of federal laws. In fact, in the early history of the United States, it was not common for judges to have the power to review laws. That practice happened only after the Supreme Court case of Marbury versus Madison in 1803.

How Is the State Court System Structured?

State courts differ so much from state to state that it is hard to describe them as a group. Unlike federal courts, some states separate legal cases from equitable cases (cases seeking money versus cases asking a court to direct a party to do something). Other states give their courts the power to hear every case, called general jurisdiction. Unlike federal courts, some state courts categorize cases based on how much money is involved in the case. Unlike federal courts, some states elect the judges that try cases. Some states even elect their Supreme Court justices.


  • A dual court system limits the power of federal courts by assigning them only certain kinds of cases.

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