Federal & State Court Similarities

By Frances Katz - Updated March 26, 2018

If you have the choice to bring or defend a case in state or federal court, it’s a decision your lawyer will make based on several legal and procedural factors. State courts hear more different types of cases and have more contact with the public. State courts hear most criminal cases, family, contract and real estate disputes between individuals. Federal courts hear fewer cases, being limited to issues involving federal laws or Constitutional questions.


Federal courts and state courts have jurisdiction over specific types of cases. A federal court can hear cases concerning federal questions arising from the Constitution, a federal law or statute or a treaty. They also have jurisdiction when at at least one member of each opposing party resides in a different state.

Requirements for Bringing a Case to Federal Court

There are only two reasons a case can be taken to federal court. A case that concerns what’s known as a “federal question,” or a case that arises from either the Constitution, a federal law or statute or a treaty can be heard in federal court.

There are certain types of cases that can only be heard in federal court. They are patent and copyright infringement, bankruptcy cases, suits for refund of federal taxes and claims under federal antitrust laws. If a case is brought in federal court, federal rules of law apply regardless of where the incident took place.

The other way to have a case heard in federal court is if the plaintiff and defendant meet the requirements for federal diversity jurisdiction. Those requirements will be met if the parties involved live in different states, at least one of the defendants lives in one state and at least one of the plaintiffs (the injured party) lives in another. In addition, the amount in dispute must be more than $75,000 or the federal court will not agree to hear your case. Federal trial courts are strict when it comes to deciding the cases they will hear.

Requirements for Bringing a Case in State Court

State courts are permitted to hear a wider variety of cases, so this is why most individuals involved in the legal process are typically involved at the state court level. Contract disputes, family disputes and traffic violations are usually tried in state courts.

A much larger number of cases are brought and defended in a state court. These are actions in which the plaintiff's claim is based upon state, not federal, law, and the plaintiff and at least one defendant reside in the same state.

Criminal Cases in State and Federal Court

Each of the 50 states have their own criminal laws. For this reason, most criminal cases are tried in state court. The only type of criminal case that can be tried in federal court is one that involves violation of a federal law or statute. For example, the crime of bank robbery could be heard in federal court if the bank’s deposits were insured by a federal agency. Other federal crimes include illegal drug trafficking across state lines, U.S. mail fraud and crimes committed on federal property, such as a national park or military base.

Choosing a Venue and Switching Courts

If you are the plaintiff or the injured party in a lawsuit, you and your lawyer can decide whether to file in state or federal court if you have a choice. If you are the defendant, you may still have a choice. If your case has any of the requirements for a federal court, your lawyer can request it be moved to the higher court. If the judge agrees that the case can be transferred, the initial case comes to a complete stop and starts over in federal court. A good lawyer should know the pros and cons of each court venue as it relates to your case.

About the Author

Frances Katz is an attorney who writes about legal issues in business for a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Week, Paste, The Independent and The New York Times. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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