Are you facing charges in California and are unsure which court will hear your case? The circumstances of your alleged crime determine if the case will be heard in a state of federal court. A court’s power to hear a certain case is known as “jurisdiction.”

Understanding “Jurisdiction”
For the government to have the ability to regulate certain actions, it needs to have “jurisdiction” over that area. For example, if a crime occurs on federal property – say, the White House – then the federal government has “jurisdiction” over the property, thus the alleged offender will be tried in federal court. Typically, if a crime occurs within the state’s boundaries and violates state’s laws, the case will be heard in a state court.

So, a state has power over defendants who violate the laws of that state, which includes the power to arrest, charge, try, and convict them. And, the federal government has power over defendants who commit criminal acts on federal property or whose criminal acts cross state lines.

The federal government also has “jurisdiction” over a group of federally defined crimes, which include offenses related to immigration fraud or United States customs violations, for example.

The Cases Heard in State Court and Federal Court

State and local courts are part of each state. The local courts are established by counties, cities and other municipalities. Federal courts are created under the U.S. Constitution and exist to rule on cases involving laws passed by Congress, as well as the Constitution. The founders of the U.S. Constitution wanted the federal government to have limited power.

Therefore, they limited the types of cases federal courts can decide on. Most laws that impact individuals in the United States were passed by state governments, so state courts then handle most issues that govern the daily lives of people.

Federal courts primarily hear cases defined by the Constitution and Congress. These include cases involving federal laws included in the Constitution; cases between citizens of differing states when that case involves controversy totaling more than $75,000; and crimes involving copywriting, patents, and bankruptcy.

Federal courts often defend the basic rights provided in the Constitution, such as the “freedom of speech” and that of “equal protection.” State courts hear the cases not specifically selected for federal courts. Just as the federal courts interpret federal laws, state courts interpret state laws.

Each state gets to make and interpret its own laws. This helps the states retain power, and makes sure that the national government does not become too strong. Examples of cases heard on the state level: broken contracts; family disputes; robberies; and traffic violations.

For cases in which both federal and state courts have “jurisdiction,” the prosecution and defense for those cases work to decide if a state court or federal court would be most appropriate.