Ask Alexis: What’s a Federal Case?

The following information is not intended as legal advice. Please see the disclaimer posted above.

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Don’t make a federal case out of it,” you may have been left with the impression that federal cases are the most serious kinds of legal cases. Actually, federal cases aren’t inherently more serious than cases in state courts. In the U.S., some kinds of cases will always be heard in federal court, while others will always be heard in state court, and some can be heard in either.

Criminal Cases

Nowadays, crimes are almost always defined by statutes, which are laws passed by legislatures. If you are accused of violating a federal criminal statute — one that was adopted by the United States House of Representatives and Senate and signed into law by the President — your case will be handled in federal court. That doesn’t mean you have to go to Washington, D.C.; federal courthouses are located in every state in the country. Criminal defendants are usually prosecuted in the district and division in which the alleged crime was committed, though that determination isn’t always clear-cut.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can only criminalize conduct that affects interstate or foreign commerce. The Commerce Clause has a complicated history in the Supreme Court. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that the two most common types of federal criminal cases are drug cases and immigration cases. Other common types include firearms crimes, fraud, other white collar crimes, and child pornography cases. Most but not all crimes are defined in Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Tax crimes are set forth in Title 26 of the U.S. Code.

Violent crimes such as murder and rape are usually tried in state courts, though there are circumstances in which such crimes might violate a federal statute. For example, a murder that is committed within a federal prison is a federal crime, as is a murder of a member of Congress, an executive official, or a federal judge. Drug crimes usually violate both federal and state statutes, and it is up to the prosecutors to decide whether to bring charges in state or federal court.

Civil Cases

Some kinds of civil cases, like divorce and child custody matters, are always handled in state court. Other types of cases can be heard in either state or federal court.

If a plaintiff’s claim against a defendant is based on a provision of the United States Constitution or a federal statute, the plaintiff may file suit in federal court. This is called federal question jurisdiction. If the plaintiff instead chooses to file the suit in state court, the defendant may remove the case to federal court or decide to keep it in state court.

Where the plaintiff’s claim is based on state law, the plaintiff can file suit in federal court if the plaintiff and defendant are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. This is called diversity jurisdiction.  Again, if the plaintiff chooses to file such a lawsuit in state court, the defendant can choose to remove it to federal court or instead keep it in state court. Because of diversity jurisdiction, breach-of-contract cases and negligence cases are often tried in federal court even though the substantive law that applies in those cases is state law.

This is an oversimplified overview of the federal and state courts’ jurisdiction, but I hope it clarifies what federal courts do and how a case might end up in federal court.

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