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Federalism and the Difference Between the Federal and State Judicial

See Also:


Trial court: 
At both the state and federal level, this is the court that makes findings of fact and hears evidence. It is where disputes are initially resolved.

Intermediate appellate court:
At both the state and federal level, this is the court that reviews the trial court’s decision.

Highest appellate court: 
At both the state and federal level, this is the court that reviews the intermediate appellate court’s decision and, sometimes, the trial court’s decision.

United States District Court: 
Federal trial court.

United States Court of Appeals: 
Federal intermediate appellate court.

United States Supreme Court:
Highest court in the United States.

Geographical area over which each United States Court of Appeals has jurisdiction.

Two court systems exist within each of the United States – the state court system within the state, and the federal court system. They operate simultaneously and are very similar. Both systems consist of trial and appellate courts. 

State Judicial Systems

The exact organization of the state court systems differs from state to state, but there are always trial courts and appellate courts, although the names of the courts at each level can be quite different.

For example, the trial court in Connecticut is called the Superior Court, while the trial court in New York is called the Supreme Court. The intermediate appellate court in Connecticut is called the Appellate Court, while in New York it is called the Appellate Division for the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The highest appellate court in Connecticut is called the Supreme Court of Connecticut, while in New York it is called the Court of Appeals of New York.

The trial courts are usually the first forum to which parties bring disputes. Some trial courts are called courts of general jurisdiction, which means they have the authority to hear all types of cases. Some trial courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, which means that they have the authority to hear only certain types of cases. See Sweeton v. Brown, 27 F.3d 1162, 1167 (6th Cir., 1994).

“Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and are empowered to hear only such cases as are within the judicial power of the United States as defined in Article III, § 2 of the Constitution.”

For example:

Jerry was involved in a motor vehicle collision on I-95 in Connecticut and wants to sue the driver of the other car for negligence. He may not bring this cause of action in the Probate Court in Connecticut, as the Probate Court may only hear issues dealing with Probate (e.g., will contests, trust administration etc.); it may not consider negligence cases or contract cases. Instead, Jerry must file his complaint with the Superior Court.

Trial courts often act as appellate courts for administrative agency decisions and decisions by courts of limited jurisdiction. See Benson v. Workforce Safety Ins., 672 N.W.2d 640 (N.D., 2003)

“Appeals to the district court from decisions of an administrative agency are statutory in nature and are not matters of original jurisdiction, but rather involve the exercise of appellate jurisdiction conferred by statute.”

For example, one aggrieved by a decision of a Board of Education may often appeal the decision to the trial court. 

The trial court’s purpose is to hear evidence, determine the facts of the case, and apply the law to the facts to arrive at a decision. It is in the trial court that evidence is heard, witnesses are examined, and juries make decisions. Usually, only one judge presides over each proceeding. In some jurisdictions, one judge is assigned to each case, i.e., the same judge will hear all pretrial motions, rule on evidence, preside over the trial, etc. In other jurisdictions, the judges will rotate, so that, for example, one judge will hear pre-trial motions, one judge will conduct jury selection, one judge will conduct the scheduling conference, and still another judge will preside over the trial or other proceeding.

The losing party, or a party that disagrees with a specific decision of the trial court, may, in most cases, appeal the decision to the appellate court. The court to which such a decision can be appealed to is usually a mid-level appellate tribunal. Appeals are usually presided over by a panel of three to five judges, and a majority must concur to reach a decision. Here, the judges will decide whether the trial court erred in its analysis of the law or in its application of the law to the facts. The intermediate appellate court will not generally disturb findings of fact made at the trial court level, as such decisions are usually left to the discretion of the trial court. A finding of fact will usually only be disturbed where the trial court has abused its discretion. The appellate court has the power to modify the trial court’s decision, in whole or in part, or to remand the case to the trial court for a new trial.

The party that loses in the appellate court may ask the highest court of appeals, usually called the (Federal or State) Supreme Court, to hear the appeal and to determine whether the intermediate appellate court erred. In Latin, this is known as petitioning the court for a writ of certiorari. In most cases, the Supreme Courts are not obligated to hear every appeal and have the discretion as to whether or not to grant certiorari. See Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 491(1953) (Frankfurter, J., separate opinion)

“From its inception certiorari jurisdiction has been treated for what it is in view of the function that it was devised to serve. It was designed to permit this Court to keep within manageable proportions, having due regard to the conditions indispensable for the wise adjudication of those cases which must be decided here, the business that is allowed to come before us. By successive measures, Congress enlarged the discretionary jurisdiction of the Court until, by the Judiciary Act of 1925, 43 Stat. 936, supplemented by the Court's own invention of the jurisdictional statement in relation to the narrow scope of residual appeals, the Court became complete master of its docket. The governing consideration was authority in the Court to decline to review decisions which, right or wrong, do not present questions of sufficient gravity. Whatever the source of these questions, whether the common law, statutes or the Constitution, other cases of obvious gravity are more than enough to absorb the Court's time and thought.”

It is important to note that a denial of certiorari offers no indication of a court’s opinion as to the merits of a particular case. All it means is that the requisite number of justices who must agree to hear the case was insufficient. See Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 491-92 (1953) (Frankfurter, J., separate opinion)

“It is within the experience of every member of this Court that we do not have to, and frequently do not, reach the merits of a case to decide that it is not of sufficient importance to warrant review here. Thirty years ago the Court rather sharply reminded the Bar not to draw strength for lower court opinions from the fact that they were left unreviewed here. 'The denial of a writ of certiorari imports no expression of opinion upon the merits of the case, as the bar has been told many times.' (citation omitted) We have repeatedly indicated that a denial of certiorari means only that, for one reason or another which is seldom disclosed, and not infrequently for conflicting reasons which may have nothing to do with the merits and certainly may have nothing to do with any view of the merits taken by a majority of the Court, there were not four members of the Court who thought the case should be heard. Any departure from this fundamental rule in the type of case we are considering ought to be based on a showing that these denials of certiorari, unlike all the other denials, are in fact the essential equivalents of adjudication on the merits.”

In some cases, however, such as death penalty cases in some states, the State Supreme Courts lack such discretion and must entertain the appeal. 

The State Supreme Courts have the power to modify intermediate appellate court decisions, in whole or in part, and to remand the cases to the trial court for new trials or to proceed as the Supreme Court directs. The decision of the highest state court is final and there is rarely, if ever, a chance to appeal a decision regarding state law further. If the decision involves federal law or interprets or applies the federal constitution, additional appeals may be available at the federal level.

Federal Judicial System

The federal judicial system is similar to the states’ systems in that there is a trial court level and two appellate court levels. Federal courts, however, are courts of limited jurisdiction, in that they may not hear every dispute. Generally, federal courts may hear disputes involving federal law, questions pertaining to the United States Constitution, disputes between two states, and cases in which the United States is a party. Jurisdiction of the federal courts will be discussed more fully in subsequent chapters.

At the federal level, trial courts are called United States District Courts. The country is divided into almost 100 districts. Each state has at least one district, and some states have more than one district (each district has one or more actual federal courts within its borders). For example, New York is divided into quadrants: the Western, Eastern, Southern and Northern Districts of New York. In general, the larger the state, in terms of population and legal activity, the more districts the state will have. Each state has at least one district to itself and no state has more than four districts. The district courts are limited to hearing cases involving their territory. For example:

Brian and Charles are involved in a contract dispute in Buffalo, New York, which is in the western part of the state and is under the jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. Absent extraordinary circumstances, Brian could not bring a cause of action against Charles in the Southern District, which encompasses, for example, parts of New York City and Westchester County.

In addition to the District Courts, two special federal trial courts have jurisdiction over particular types of cases. The United States Court of Federal Claims hears cases involving claims for money damages against the United States, disputes over federal contracts, federal “takings” of private property, and other claims against the United States. The Court of International Trade has jurisdiction over claims involving international trade and customs.

At the federal level, the intermediate appellate courts are called the United States Courts of Appeals. The jurisdiction of the Courts of Appeals is divided into circuits. There are a total of thirteen circuits in the United States, including the District of Columbia Circuit and the "Federal" Circuit. The other circuits are numbered 1 through 11 and are divided as follows: 

First Circuit: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island
Second Circuit: Connecticut, New York, Vermont
Third Circuit: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virgin Islands.
Fourth Circuit: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia.
Fifth Circuit: District of the Canal Zone, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas.
Sixth Circuit: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee.
Seventh Circuit: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin.
Eighth Circuit: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota.
Ninth Circuit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, Hawaii.
Tenth Circuit: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming.
Eleventh Circuit: Alabama, Florida, Georgia.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is the appellate court for the Court of Federal Claims and the Court of International Trade, and also hears appeals in specialized cases. For example, the Federal Circuit will hear cases involving patent laws. See American Silicon Technologies v. U.S., 334 F.3d 1033, 1036 (Fed. Cir., 2003)

(“The Court of International Trade reviews final decisions of Commerce for "substantial evidence on the record" and consistency ‘with law.’ 19 U.S.C. § 1516a(b)(1)(B)(i) (2000). This court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(5) to review final decisions of the Court of International Trade.").

Similar to the intermediate appellate courts at the state level, a three-judge panel usually presides over each case, and at least two must concur in the decision.

The court of last resort in the entire country is the Supreme Court of the United States. It is the highest court in the federal judicial system. There are a total of nine Supreme Court Justices: one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. Each Justice, appointed by the President of the United States, enjoys life tenure.

The U.S. Supreme Court does not hear every case it is asked to review; rather, it has discretion to grant or deny certiorari to any case it chooses. The court is asked to resolve thousands of disputes every year, and, generally, it agrees to hear only about 300 cases. Only about 150 are actually argued before the court and receive a final decision. The Court usually hears cases regarding interpretation or application of the United States Constitution or federal law that have great impact throughout the country.

The U.S. Supreme Court may hear cases involving, for example, disputes between two states; disputes between a state and the United States; actions by a state against a citizen of another state or a foreign national; and cases brought by or against a foreign ambassador or consul. See United States Constitution, Article III, Section 2

Six of the justices must be present for a case to be argued, and five of those in attendance must agree on the final decision before it is released as the final decision of the court.