Federal courts are authorized to hear specific cases that deal with matters of national importance, including immigration, copyright laws, bankruptcy cases, and criminal cases that rise to the level of federal law.

Similar to the state courts, the federal court system is structured into distinct parts:

  • The U.S. District Courts are lower trial courts. There are 94 federal judicial districts in the U.S., and each district has a district court. State boundaries are often used to define federal districts, like for the Idaho District Court, but for states like California, the district may cover just part of a state (like the Northern District of California). You can find your federal district court using the U.S. Courts’ Court Locator.
  • The U.S. Court of Appeals are where you can appeal the findings of federal court judges. All of the 94 federal districts are divided into 12 regional circuits, each of which has its own court of appeals.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. The U.S. Supreme Court is different from any other court, especially when it comes to which cases it can decide to hear. The Supreme Court can only hear cases that have been appealed from lower courts, and it only deals with cases that involve federal law or otherwise fall into federal court jurisdiction. The Supreme Court can hear cases that name the U.S. as a party in the case; involve a violation of the U.S. Constitution; involve a violation of federal laws; involve citizens of different states and the amount in question exceeds $75,000; or involve bankruptcy, copyright, patent, or maritime law.

The biggest differences between state and federal courts are (1) jurisdiction and (2) what laws the courts deal with.

First of all, state courts have much broader jurisdiction (which is why state courts hear everything from drug cases to divorce to personal injury law). Federal courts, on the other hand, can only hear cases that fall into certain categories, i.e. when the U.S. is a party or when the case involves federal laws like copyright statutes.

Another major difference between state and federal courts are the laws that establish them and the laws they deal with on a daily basis. Each individual state establishes its state and local courts. However, federal courts are established by the U.S. Constitution to decide disputes that individual state courts cannot.

When it comes to conflicts between state and federal laws, the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution comes into play. Under the Supremacy Clause, federal law is the “supreme law of the land,” and individual judges in each state are required to follow the Constitution and laws of the federal government in any matters that affect the state. Therefore, even when laws conflict, federal laws overrule state laws and a federal court can order a state to stop certain behavior if it conflicts with federal law.