A federal charge is more serious than a state charge, largely because of the potential penalties that might be imposed when someone is convicted. The differences between the two courts, federal and state, comes down to jurisdiction, which refers to the types of cases that a court can hear.

Jurisdiction of Federal and State Courts

The jurisdiction of federal court is limited to the kinds of cases that are listed in the U.S. Constitution and those that Congress specifically provides for. Federal
courts generally only hear:

  • Cases where the United States is listed as a plaintiff or a defendant
  • Cases that involve a violation of the U.S. Constitution or a violation of a federal law
  • Cases that involve an amount over $75,000 and are between citizens that live in different states
  • Copyright, bankruptcy, patent and maritime law cases

There are instances in which a case may be heard in state or federal court. In these types of cases, the parties will determine whether the case is heard in state or federal court.

State courts are the courts that most individual citizens are most likely to be involved with. They have broad jurisdiction and cases such as robberies, family disputes, traffic violations and broken contracts are usually heard in state court. State courts are not allowed to hear certain cases that involve federal laws, such as antitrust, patent, bankruptcy, copyright and criminal cases.

Most criminal cases are tried in state court, but there are some criminal cases that are only tried in federal court. For example, most robbery cases are tried in state court; however, a charge of bank robbery is tried in federal court. Other federal crimes include using the mail to defraud customers, transporting illegal drugs across state lines or into the country or crimes that occurred on federal property.

How Many Cases Are Heard Each Year in State and Federal Court?

State courts have a much larger caseload than federal court. Many of the federal cases are those that are of national importance. The country’s Supreme Court often hears cases that involve civil rights or specific federal laws.

There are about 30,000 judges in the state court system, and they handle about 30 million cases each year. Federal courts have about 1,700 judges in the federal court system and hear about 1 million cases each year.

Defense Options in State and Federal Cases

If you have been charged in federal court, you should have an attorney who is experienced in federal court procedures. It operates differently than state courts do and the penalties are often more serious than in state court. An attorney can help you understand the intricacies of federal court.