Federal vs. State Court Systems

Amanda Zaluckyj - Wednesday February 22, 2023

The U.S. has a dual court system, meaning that there are courts that a case progresses through at both the state and federal levels. Each state has a unique court system, though there are often similarities across states.

Where is a Case Filed?

Generally, a case is filed in a state or federal court according to jurisdiction. The federal courts are limited to two types of cases: (1) where the opposing parties are all from different states; and (2) actions involving federal law where the amount in controversy is more than $75,000. Some matters, like criminal cases, are filed based on the type of law violated. For example, if a person commits tax evasion, they would be tried in federal court as tax evasion violates federal law. 

State Court

In Indiana’s judicial system, small matters, like misdemeanors, traffic violations, and other similar offenses, are handled in the municipal courts. Larger matters begin in the superior, circuit, or probate courts. The superior, circuit, and probate courts, as well as the town and city courts, are known as trial courts.
A case in Indiana usually begins in one of the trial courts. If a party decides to appeal the trial court’s decisions or verdict they will bring the case to the Indiana Court of Appeals. Indiana has another appellate court called the Tax Court, which has jurisdiction over all cases involving Indiana tax law. Some cases then ascend to the Supreme Court of Indiana if a party chooses to appeal it again. But the Indiana Supreme Court ultimately makes the decision on whether it will accept the appeal. While this is a highly simplified version of the appeal process, you can learn more about it in detail here.

Most states in the U.S. have court systems that are similar to Indiana. Forty-two of the fifty states have an intermediate court of appeals. The other eight states have an equivalent to a court of appeals or some intermediate court that handles appellate matters. From there, a case would proceed to the highest court in the state, generally known as the supreme court. Sometimes, one of the lower circuit or superior courts may refer the case directly to the supreme court without going through the intermediate appellate court.
A state may have a variety of other courts which handle specific matters, such as a probate court, family court, or juvenile court. 

Federal Court

Like most states, the federal court system also employs a three-tiered process. The lowest level of the federal court system consists of the 94 district courts in the U.S. that span across all the states (at least one in each) and territories. These district courts are the trial courts of the federal system. Federal cases are first heard in one of the district courts.

The next tier consists of the Circuit Courts of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Two are in Washington D.C.: the D.C. Federal Circuit Court and the D.C. Supreme Court. The other eleven span the remainder of the 50 states. These are the intermediate appellate courts of the federal system. The verdict of one of the 94 district courts would be appealed to one of the Courts of Appeals. 

The verdicts of the U.S. Court of Appeals can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the highest judicial body in the United States.

It is important to note that all supreme courts—whether a state supreme court, their equivalent, or the U.S. Supreme Court—choose what cases they hear. They generally only hear cases where they disagree with the lower court’s decision or where they wish to provide guidance on unsettled law.

While there are some similarities between the federal and state courts, they’re really more loose reflections than exact mirrors. Because each court system is unique, it’s always advisable to seek qualified legal counsel for your specific needs. 

Talk to the lawyers at Athora for more information on all of your legal needs.