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Comparing and Contrasting of Federal and State Courts


Federal and states court interact with one another owing to the system of government in the country, that is; judicial federalism. The US central political authority shares power with subunits in various states both legally and politically. Tensions often arise between the latter entities and the former ones. This is because state institutions want to remain autonomous while he federal institutions want to share their burdens with these smaller units.

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How the federal and state courts work

The national government has set up federal courts to handle federal laws and the country’s constitution. This means that whenever a matter involves the United States, then the federal court must handle it. Alternatively, if one violates a law of the US constitution, then he or she will answer to a federal court. Sometimes individuals may belong to different states, so this calls for a supreme authority to preside over the matter; the federal court comes in handy. Therefore, the US constitution created federal courts (US Courts, 2012).

Conversely, state courts exist in order to interpret state laws and state constitutions. States, cities and other levels of governments institute state courts. This level of courts covers the widest number of cases in the judicial system. In fact, 30 million cases belong to state courts while only 1 million cases belong to federal courts. These institutions may handle any other cases that the US constitution does not expressly cover. These may include criminal offenses, probate, traffic regulations, real property cases, tort laws and matters of the election.

Supremacy of the courts

Federal courts and state courts both use federal law when making decisions. The US constitution is supreme to all other state laws. Consequently, state courts are must implement a federal law or utilize court decisions that federal courts made. As a result, federal courts have the upper hand in the interpretation of the law because their resolutions apply to state courts. Sometimes abiding by this rule is easy; state courts may do this quite willingly. However, in other instances, they may try to minimize the effect of federal law on their actions. This interaction between state and federal courts is vertical judicial federalism.

Even though federal courts reign supreme over state courts, they must grant state laws relative autonomy. A state court is the only one that has a right to interpret its own laws. Therefore, federal courts cannot dictate to them how to apply their own cases. When state laws contradict national laws, then federal courts can intervene. Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Company (1923) established the above decision. Here, the court ruled that in order to protect state autonomy, federal courts should not interfere in state laws. Such actions are only permissible when state laws undermine the US constitution. The ruling of the Bush v. Gore (2000) reinforced this doctrine. In the matter, the plaintiff objected to the vote-counting processes in the state of Florida. The Supreme Court judge questioned the handling of the matter in a federal court because Florida state laws covered the vote-counting process. Nonetheless, George Bush’s representatives claimed that the process already violated a part of the US constitution; that is, the fourteenth amendment. As a result, the Rooker doctrine no longer applied in the case. In this regard, the federal court got involved because a state had violated the US constitution. Irrespective of that, the US Supreme Court, could still not challenge the Florida state court’s interpretation of statutes regarding election processes; it could only focus on violations of federal law.

Federal courts set the precedence for certain laws, but state courts may opt to ignore those rulings. In the 1960s, the country decided that state courts had the obligation to protect human rights as stipulated in the Bill of rights. However, analyses illustrate that state courts do not implement all bill-of-right laws. Sometimes a federal law may contradict the conservative ideas of a state court. During such circumstances, the state court could either choose to ignore the new federal law or claim that the law is too ambiguous for interpretation. When the laws are too vague, then state courts may claim that they do not apply to them. This trend was especially prevalent during the implementation of civil rights issues for African Americans. Although the Supreme Court had passed progressive laws for the protection of blacks, several states did not bother to implement these rulings in their respective courts until much later. In criminal law, the same thing has taken place, as well. Here, many state courts have tried to delay the implementation of federal-court decisions that expand defendants’ rights. The United States Supreme Court expanded criminal defendants’ rights in Escobedo v. Illinois (1964) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966). State courts were not eager to apply these laws; most of them took on narrow interpretations of their decisions in order to maintain their criminal law proceedings (Hogan, 2006).

Defendants may use both federal and state courts to find the most appropriate institution to cover their needs. They may select the institution that has the most comprehensive civil rights protection. This ability to depend on state laws for certain interpretations of the law, even when federal courts do not recognize them, refers to the utilization of the independence of states. Some critics claim that such an approach to the interpretation of laws is quite opportunistic. State court judges can use the concept of vertical federalism to resist federal court decisions. This approach transforms state statutes into end-driven policies rather than institutions that uphold theoretical underpinnings of laws. Such a mechanism transforms judges into politicians because they can use their personal values to make judicial decisions.

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State courts differ from federal courts because they may borrow legal interpretations from other states; nonetheless, this is not obligatory. Usually, a state court will use another state court’s decision when it has never dealt with an issue. For instance, a California state court may borrow New York States’ interpretation of mercy killing if the matter has never come before a California court. The correlation between various state courts is horizontal judicial federalism.

State and federal courts substantially defer from one another on the basis of the cases that they handle. If a case encompasses parties from different states, then the federal court will preside over it. As mentioned earlier, the entity will act as a supreme authority in the case. These occurrences are unique to federal systems because although all states have autonomy over their residents, interactions still occur between various parties. State courts have no authority to handle such cases.

Additionally, federal courts have the distinctive right to handle cases that involve violations against the country. State courts must hand -over such cases to the former bodies. Usually, these may include bankruptcy cases, where the state relieves a person off his debts or trademark infringement cases. Sometimes violations against federal laws may take the form of antitrust laws such as price fixing and monopolies or admiralty that cover maritime offenses. Securities and banking violations also qualify as violations of federal laws. Lastly, one may commit a direct crime against the state through terrorism, treason, piracy or many others. On the other hand, state courts have to handle cases that involve violations of their state constitutions. These may entail criminal offenses that occur between two independent (nonstate) parties. Some of the common ones include theft, arson, property destruction and others. Alternatively, state courts may handle the tort laws during the execution of duties, contract laws between consenting parties, family law, probate, traffic offenses, election-related issues like voter registration and sale of goods. Therefore, since federal courts focus on protection of the US constitution, their caseloads mostly dwell on violations against this law. Conversely, state laws focus on individual cases that violate their own laws.

Federal and state courts may sometimes be regarded as similar when it comes to certain cases. Both courts can take on civil cases with parties from different states if no member objects to the use of a certain state court. This may entail an amount that exceeds $75000. On the other hand, when the amount is less than $75,000, then two parties from separate states can still take the matter to a state court if no one objects. Alternatively, if the matter is a federal question, then either federal or state courts can handle it. Here, a state court can listen to a matter of the US constitution if the issue directly affects state law. Nonetheless, federal courts can intervene and review it. This review must focus exclusively on the interpretation of the federal constitution. Concurrent jurisdiction in federal and state courts is a distinct possibility for defendants and plaintiffs.

Most criminal cases are a preserve for state courts; however, certain incidences may cause federal courts to preside over them. For instance, if a person commits a crime on federally-owned property, such as rivers and forest reserves, then a federal court will handle the suspect’s case. Alternatively, if a person uses federally owned companies or property to commit crimes, then federal courts will prosecute the person. In this regard, typical state court cases may sometimes go to federal courts. Likewise, some typical federal court cases may be tried in state courts when the complainant brought the case through a state law into the state court.

Federal courts are quite different from state courts because they can rule on cases from state courts, but the opposite cannot occur. Federal courts do this in order to determine whether a state court violated a part of the constitution. Such cases are common because state courts highly interact with the public, and they may focus excessively on minor violations while ignoring basic civil rights. For instance, a state may decide that it is illegal to slaughter animals in certain areas, and may rule against the defendant. Such an individual may take the matter to a federal court by claiming that the state court violated his federal right to freedom of religion. The federal court may make a decision against the state of the court, as a result.

Practical perspectives

The above-mentioned differences and similarities are theoretical in nature. One must also consider the actual implementation of these guidelines in the legal profession. O’Connor (1981) reports that some state court judges may worry about the interventions of federal courts that they sometimes choose to make their decisions solely on what they think federal courts will do. However, these state court judges often belong to higher levels such as the state appellate courts.

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Many criminal case lawyers will raise objections against state criminal cases because they will garner habeas corpus review from federal courts. A number of state court judges know that these patterns are common. Consequently, they have familiarized themselves with federal criminal laws applicable to their state cases. In fact, a number of states designate criminal cases to such experienced judges in order to minimize opportunistic tendencies. In modern times, it is a known fact that the federal appeal mechanism is more protective of the defendant than it is of the state court. Nonetheless, restrictions still exist with regard to the application of habeas corpus in criminal cases. The constitution requires federal courts to explain why the findings in a state court did not concur with prevailing records. These federal courts must presume that trial facts are correct (Reitz, 1997).

In order to understand how federal and state courts interact with one another, it is necessary to look at a case study that applied this principle. One such case was Michigan Department of Police v. Sitz (1990) and the subsequent appeal case of Sitz v. Michigan Department of Police (1993). The first case was a civil suit against Rick Sitz. The latter individual initiated litigation against the department of police for randomly instating alcohol checkpoints in his area. The litigant claimed that the Michigan police were violating Forth Amendment rules against unreasonable searches. The Michigan state court ruled in favor of Mr. Sitz. Likewise, the Michigan Court of Appeals looked into the matter and upheld the previous ruling. The Department of police then took the case to the Michigan Supreme Court., but the latter institution refused to hear the case. As a result, the appellants decided to take it to the US Supreme Court. In this regard, the work of the Supreme Court was to determine whether the police had conducted an unreasonable seizure as it had already been established that the random checks were seizures. The US Supreme Court found that the lower courts had made a mistake in asserting that the checks were a violation of the constitution. They explained that the state wanted to prevent drunken driving; in order to achieve this, it needed to intrude upon motorists’ lives. As such, this was not a violation of the fourth amendment. The Supreme Court reversed the decision and sent it back to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

In the Court of Appeals, Sitz and other drivers in the state looking for a different avenue for making their case. They claimed that the search and seizures violated the Michigan constitution in article 1, section 11. The Michigan Court of Appeals held the US Supreme Court ruling that the seizures did not contravene amendment 4 of the constitution. However, they supported Sitz by affirming that they violated the constitution of Michigan State. The matter entered the Michigan Supreme Court, and the court found that it had contravened Michigan laws, as well. The seizures were warrantless, and they lacked suspicion. In this regard, the Michigan Supreme Court judge found that the applicable civil rights were more protected by state laws than federal laws.

One can learn a lot of lessons from this case study concerning the key differences and similarities between federal and state courts. First, it is clear that litigants or defendants have several avenues to exhaust in state court systems before the matter goes to a federal court. Secondly and most importantly, the case will only get into a federal court if the matter violates the US constitution; Sitz found that the seizure had violated the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution. It is also clear that when federal courts deal with state cases, they can only focus on the violation of the US constitution. In this case, the US Supreme Court only covered the part about unreasonable seizures in the fourth amendment. They did not look at other possible state or federal laws that the police may have violated. Furthermore, this case demonstrated that sometimes litigants may take cases from federal courts back to state courts if they can find other state law violations. In this matter, one cannot assert that a state court overruled the US Supreme Court’s decision; it simply focused on new facts of the case and new laws. It is not possible for a state court to overrule a federal court. The US Supreme Court decided on this in the case of Ableman v. Booth (1859). Here, state courts could no longer issue rulings that violated federal courts (Taylor, 2003). However, if the parties involved find that the matter violated a state law, then they can make a different ruling on it. Only the legislature can alter a US Supreme Court decision by making a constitutional amendment. The case also illustrates that the state court judges have the right to interpret their own constitution as they see fit. The US Supreme Court could not interfere with the Michigan Court of Appeals concerning violation of its state laws on searches and seizures.

This case shows that the federal court has the final say when it comes to violations of federal laws; the US Supreme Court is the final arbiter with regard to a certain line of defense. Nonetheless, the latter case also shows that state courts have a lot of power in issues that relate to their state laws. The federal courts in this case also provided a standard for civil rights that the state courts could not fall below; the presiding judge called this a floor. On the other hand, the case also illustrated that sometimes state courts may have permission to raise the standard for the protection of citizens’ rights.


The duality of government influences federal and state court interactions. Each court is independent of the other because it focuses on its own set of laws. However, federal courts may intervene when the matter contravenes state laws. On the other hand, state courts have the right to rule on matters that involve their state laws, and federal courts cannot interfere with these decisions.


Hogan, S. (2006). The Judicial branch of state government: people, process and politics. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO

O’Connor, S. (1981). Trends in the relationship between the federal and state courts from the perspective of a state court judge. William and Mary Law Review 22, 801-821

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Reitz, K. (1997). Sentencing guidelines systems and sentence appeals: a comparison of federal and state experiences. Northwestern University Law Review 91(4), 1441-1445

Taylor, M. (2003). A more perfect union: Ableman v Booth and culmination of federal sovereignty. Journal of Supreme Court History 28(2), 101-115

US Courts (2012). Comparing federal and state courts. Web.

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