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Understanding the Difference Between Federal and State Laws

The United States legal system can be confusing to those less familiar with its structure. Outside of the higher-level concepts between the different branches of government, even the laws overseeing our day-to-day activities can be difficult to unpack. One way to start understanding how our legal system works, however, is to explore the fundamental difference between federal and state laws.

Federal Courts and State Courts

Because federal and state courts have a different scope and abide by specific laws, the cases heard by each have importantly different outcomes. Further, because there’s such a distinction between federal and state law, both courts have different hierarchies among judges, elected court officials, and law enforcement.

Another important disclaimer here is that laws vary from state to state. Laws that are relevant to communities in Maine may be unnecessary in New Mexico. Despite the variation in state laws, federal laws bind all states.

The United States Courts is a governmental body that monitors and updates the nature of federal and state government systems. Importantly, the organization concentrates on three primary areas where federal and state courts differ:

  • The Structure of Federal and State Courts: The Constitution of the United States establishes the most powerful court in the country, the Supreme Court. Similarly, most state Constitutions and corresponding sets of laws feature their own state Supreme Court as the highest body in the judiciary hierarchy. From these top-level courts, the second-highest rung in the chain of command federally and in most states are the Courts of Appeals. Federally, the hierarchy then devolves into District Courts, Claims Courts, Bankruptcy Courts and International Trade Courts. State courts, separately, trickle down into concentrations that deal more with laws established at the state-level, like juvenile courts, probate courts and civil courts.
  • How Judges Are Chosen: This is an important distinction. At the federal level, judges are “nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.” At the state level, though, judges can be chosen by different means, depending on the state. These methods can include popular election (at the state, county or district level), appointment for a set period of time, a lifetime appointment and any combination of these methods.
  • What Each Court System Rules On: Federal courts entertain a variety of cases outside of the scope of state courts. The federal court system handles cases that question the constitutionality of any law, determine a treaty established by the United States, involve U.S. officials acting in international capacities, and settle conflicts between states, to name a few. On the other side, state court systems handle most criminal, contract, probate and family law cases.

If parties involved in a case in a lower court dispute the outcome or verdict, they may have a right to appeal to higher courts. As cases rise the chain of judiciary command, the Supreme Court of the United States or of the state will make the final decision.

Why the Difference Between Federal and State Laws Matters

One of the most important reasons for understanding the difference between state and federal law is when citizens need to pursue legal help. It’s necessary to know what kind of court — and what kind of lawyer — to turn to depending on the scenario.

For example, if a person were to have a dispute over inheritance, they should turn to a probate attorney to look to settle things in a state probate court. A criminal defense attorney or a constitutional law scholar would probably be able to offer some helpful advice, but a probate attorney would know the ins and outs of that process a lot more comprehensively.

In sum, the more people know about their rights and protections at state and federal levels, the more able they’ll be to protect themselves.

Famous Cases in Federal and State Courts

To understand the difference between federal and state laws, it’s helpful to look at how the distinction has evolved. The United States’ legal system, at the state and the federal level, is unique because of its ability to change. Some famous examples can help simplify an otherwise complex process.

Brown v. Board of Education

Arguably one of the most famous and important decisions in U.S. history, Brown v. Board of Education can help explain the difference between federal and state laws. According to the National Park Service, which has since recognized many of the buildings involved, the case’s “landmark decision highlights the U.S. Supreme Court’s role in affecting changes in national and social policy.” In 1951, Oliver Brown sued the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas because of their segregationist policies preventing his daughter from attending a nearby school. Along with twelve other African American families, Brown filed a class action suit in the U.S. federal courts, bypassing Kansas’s state courts.

Brown’s case ultimately arrived at  the Supreme Court of the United States, where the court deemed the 1896 case that established many segregationist policies nationally, Plessy v. Ferguson, unconstitutional. In the aftermath of the ruling, many states tried to uphold segregationist policies or delay integration. As a result, the United States Supreme Court deemed these various state laws both unconstitutional and unlawful, since they violated the rulings established by the highest court in the country.

Operation Family Secrets

In 1981, Michael Cagnoni was murdered when his car exploded as he started it. After it had been investigated and no solid leads had been discovered, the case was declared cold. Seventeen years after the murder, the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a tip in the form of an anonymous letter. The contents of that letter would eventually result in an indictment that included 14 different defendants and handle 18 formerly unsolved murders. According to the FBI, the letter was sent to dismantle the mafia operation known as the Chicago Outfit, which was “a criminal enterprise operating out of the city for

After a seven-year investigation, the FBI charged each defendant in federal criminal courts. This is important to help understand the difference between federal and state laws, because while most criminal investigations are confined to state jurisdictions, in this case involving a criminal conspiracy spanning multiple states, it needed to be tried at the federal level. Additionally, since a federal agency in the FBI investigated and ultimately produced charges against multiple members of a criminal enterprise, the case needed to be handled in a federal court.

Gideon v. Wainwright

In 1963, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for breaking and entering a pool hall in Florida. After his arrest, he requested the state of Florida provide him legal representation in his case, which the state denied. He presented his case poorly before the criminal court, resulting in a guilty verdict. Eventually, Gideon would appeal the court’s decision, stating that he had been denied access to adequate legal defense.

In this case, the Supreme Court of the United States would reverse a decision made at the state level, finding that Gideon being deprived of a public defender was unconstitutional. This precedent established by the highest federal court would fundamentally standardize the way state courts would act going forward.

Unpacking and understanding the difference between federal and state law is especially important for those considering a career in criminal justice. Because prospective lawyers, criminologists, police officers and detectives rely on a breadth of legal knowledge, it’s necessary to realize how state and federal law differs. One of the most effective ways to understand this distinction is through an online B.A. in Criminal Justice.

At Virginia Wesleyan University, students in our fully online criminal justice degree path engage with practical, grounded, and real-world skills that prove invaluable in the field. Further, because our courses are 8 weeks in length, students are granted an accommodating, flexible schedule that allows for work, life, and family commitments. Learn more about our program today and start thinking about how you’ll best serve your community.