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Want to Make a Federal Case Out of It?

You may have heard someone say: “Don’t make a federal case out of it.” But what happens if you do want to commence a federal case? Both the federal government and each of the state governments have their own court systems that hear criminal and civil cases.

Federal, State — or Both

Below are the types of cases only heard in federal or state courts. However, some legal disputes might be heard in federal or state courts, such as crimes punishable under both federal and state law, federal constitutional issues, class action cases and environmental regulations.

Federal Courts

State Courts

Crimes under laws enacted by the U.S. Congress Crimes under state legislation.
Most cases involving federal laws or regulations including tax, Social Security, broadcasting and civil rights. State constitutional issues and cases involving state laws or regulations.
Bankruptcy. Real property.
Patent, copyright, and other intellectual property issues. Probate and inheritance matters.
Securities and commodities regulation, including takeover of publicly held corporations. Most private contract disputes (except those under bankruptcy law).
Interstate and international commerce, including airline and railroad regulation. Family law issues including divorce and child custody.
Disputes between states. Most professional malpractice issues.
International trade law matters as well as rights under treaties, foreign states and foreign nationals. Most issues involving the regulation of trades and professions.
State law disputes when “diversity of citizenship” exists. Most personal injury lawsuits and workers’ injury claims.

Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

In federal courts, there are federal rules of evidence, and rules of civil, criminal, bankruptcy and appellate procedure that must be followed.

To determine if your civil case is a federal case, you have to look at Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), which govern civil proceedings.

The United States Supreme Court proposes the FRCP and Congress has veto power over them for a seven month period. There are 86 rules in the FRCP, which are grouped into 11 titles.

For example:

  • Rule 3 provides that a civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court.
  • Rule 4 deals with procedures for issuance of a summons, when the complaint is filed, and for the service of the summons and complaint on the defendants.
  • Rule 5 requires that all papers in an action be served on all parties and be filed with the court.

Important: Under Title II, Rule 12, a federal court has the authority to dismiss a case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction upon a motion of a party or upon its own initiative. Subject-matter jurisdiction is the authority of a court to hear cases of a particular type or cases related to a specific subject matter. For instance, only U.S. Bankruptcy Courts have the authority to hear bankruptcy cases.

Federal Jurisdiction

By far, the most important two categories of federal subject-matter jurisdiction in civil cases are:

1. Federal question jurisdiction. Under federal law, district courts have subject-matter jurisdiction in all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.

To meet the requirement of a case “arising under” federal law, the federal question must appear on the face of the plaintiff’s complaint. Note that, this jurisdiction is ordinarily not exclusive. States may hear claims based on federal law in some cases.

2. Diversity jurisdiction. Cases may be filed in federal courts based on the “diversity” of the litigants, such as between citizens of different states, or between U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries.

One limit to diversity jurisdiction is that only cases involving more than $75,000 in potential damages can be filed in federal courts. Cases with potential damages below $75,000 must be heard in state courts.

A corporation is treated as a citizen of the state in which it is incorporated and the state in which its principal place of business is located. A partnership or limited liability company is considered to have the citizenship of all of its constituent partners or members.

As you can see, to bring a federal case, there are many rules to follow. Speak with your attorney about whether your case should be a federal case.

The United States Federal Court System

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judiciary. It consists of the Chief Justice and eight associate justices.

Appellate Courts are made up of 12 regional Circuit Court of Appeals and one U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

Trial Courts are made up of 94 U.S. District Courts in judicial districts, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Other Federal Courts and Entities are made up of trial and appellate military courts, the Court of Veterans Appeals, the U.S. Tax Court and federal administrative agencies and boards.