Why Does the United States Have Two Different Kinds of Courts?

In the United States, we have two different kinds of courts: federal courts and state courts. It’s been this way since 1788, when a group of nerdy Americans ratified the Constitution. Article III of the Constitution states that the “judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” With this little sentence, James Madison et al. set the stage for the development of the complex federal judicial system we have today.

Before the ratification of the Constitution, the thirteen original states were governed by the Articles of Confederation, which didn’t provide for a federal judiciary. Instead, legal disputes were largely settled by state courts (the only courts around). This approach had some problems.

First, where cases introduced conflicts between federal and state interests, states had little incentive to enforce federal laws. Second, without a Supreme Court, state courts couldn’t maintain uniformity in their interpretation of federal laws. Third, state courts were too biased to hear disputes between the states themselves. Finally, in the absence of a court with national authority, citizens had no place to file complaints against the national government.

For all of these reasons, we’ve had a federal Supreme Court since the ratification of the Constitution. But wait! You’re a smart cookie. You’ve read in the news that other federal courts exist too. These lower courts were created by Congress in 1789. The number and structure of these lower courts has changed since then, as new laws have been passed and cases decided, but our doubled system of state and federal courts has persisted.

How Is the Federal Court System Structured?

The federal judicial system has three tiers. A litigant in the system starts off in a federal district court. A district court is where the trial actually happens. Where the parties have different stories about what happened, the district court acts as a fact-finder, and writes the official summary of events. Based on these findings of fact, the district court renders a legal decision, applying the law to the facts. 

If a litigant believes the district court decided the case wrongly, the litigant may ask an appellate court to reverse the decision. In the United States, we have 94 district courts, but only 13 appellate courts. Appellate courts are also known as circuit courts because they preside over “circuits” that govern several district courts within the same geographic region. (An exception is the Federal Circuit, which hears cases that involve specialized subject matter.) 

Appellate courts do not have juries, because they do not find facts. Generally, after deferring to the district court’s judgment as to the facts of the case, the appellate court will scrutinize the district court’s judgment for errors of law. If it finds that the district court was right on the facts, but wrong on the law, it will issue a new decision correctly applying the law. 

Litigants who are unhappy with the appellate court’s decision can ask the Supreme Court to hear their case. However, the Supreme Court only hears oral arguments in roughly 100 cases every year. As such, decisions of the federal appellate courts are almost always final. 

How Are State Court Systems Structured?

State judicial systems are also composed of a state’s trial courts, appellate courts, and a state’s highest court(s). However, each state uses a slightly different naming system for its courts, which can make things confusing. For example, the highest court in New York State is known as the New York State Court of Appeals, while its trial court is known as the New York Supreme Court. 

Furthermore, some states have a judicial structure unique to the state. Texas, for example, has two highest courts: the Supreme Court of Texas, which renders decisions in civil cases, and the Court of Criminal Appeals, which renders decisions in criminal cases. Our national highest court, the Supreme Court of the United States, can review the decisions of all state supreme courts. 

What Makes Federal Judges Different from State Court Judges?

Rather than being directly elected to office, federal judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Given good behavior, the Constitution grants federal judges the protections of life tenure. Furthermore, Congress cannot reduce their salary. This insulates federal judges from political blowback when they make unpopular decisions.

Generally, state judges must run for office. Furthermore, they rarely enjoy the wide set of career protections granted to members of the federal judiciary. As a result, some people argue that federal courts are better suited to protect constitutional rights, particularly the rights of minorities, and enforce politically unpopular laws.

What Kinds of Cases Are Litigated in Federal vs. State Courts?

The vast majority of cases are heard in state courts. State courts are courts of general jurisdiction, meaning that they can try all cases, except those that Congress has specified should be litigated only in federal courts. Federal courts, on the other hand, are courts of limited jurisdiction: they can only try certain kinds of cases.

Generally, a case can only be heard in federal court if it presents a federal question or involves diversity of citizenship. A case presents a federal question if it involves a violation of federal law. A case involves diversity of citizenship if the opposing parties are citizens of different states (or if one is from a foreign country). Given that so many lawsuits involve diversity of citizenship, federal courts will only hear these cases where the amount of money the parties are arguing over exceeds $75,000.

Can State Courts Decide Issues of Federal Law?

Yes.

State courts can rule on questions of federal law, except where Congress has mandated that a specific kind of case can only be heard in federal court. As the Supreme Court noted in Claflin v. Houseman, federal law is the law of the land––effective in every state. Not only are state courts allowed to rule on federal law, they must enforce federal law to perform their duty of enforcing laws valid within the state.

Can Federal Courts Decide Issues of State Law?

Yes.

The Supreme Court can review decisions of each state’s highest court, but only insofar as a case raises a question of federal law. Decisions of a state’s highest court are final on questions of state law.

The lower federal courts also regularly rule on matters of state law. As we’ve discussed, even a case that exclusively involves state law can enter the federal system if the parties suing have diversity of citizenship. In cases like these, the court must apply state law to decide the issues. Determining which state’s laws to apply is a convoluted process, but the federal courts are theoretically better able to make impartial decisions than the state courts themselves.

Furthermore, cases that do raise federal questions may be tightly bound with matters of state law. In these cases, a federal court may exercise supplemental jurisdiction to decide the state law issues along with the federal.

Of course, these jurisdictional principles are complicated by a variety of exceptions and legal wrinkles—but you'll learn more about those in law school.


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