federal law vs state law

What’s the difference between federal law vs state law? Why do some court cases get taken to the Supreme Court, while others stay in the local districts?

The law is the law. Don’t murder, don’t steal and don’t bounce checks. You know how to stay out of trouble. But for those ne’er-do-wells out there who like to kidnap and commit armed robbery, here’s a little guide to the difference between Federal law vs State law.

Federal Law vs State Law

Many times, people think the severity of the crime determines the jurisdiction of the trial or court case. For example, murder is a felony, as is identity theft. Those should be handled in federal court, right? Then, you’ve got speeding tickets and the like, which are less severe. So people are inclined to think that those should be handled at the state level.

That’s just not true.

In very, very simplified terms, there are a few things which will determine whether a case is tried at the Federal level. Those are cases which pertain to:

  • Interpretation of the Constitution
  • Violations of Federal laws
  • Bankruptcy, copyright and similar cases
  • Cases in which the United States is a direct party
  • Some cases which involve parties in two different states

Most court cases are handled by state courts. Each state has its own “rules” regarding just about everything from contracts and wills to worker’s comp and even criminal activity. That said, if you’re charged with a crime, you’re most likely going to be heard by a local or state court. In that case, you’ll hire a criminal defense lawyer and your case will probably remain within the confines of your state’s jurisdiction.

There are, however, exceptions to this. Let’s look at how that works.

When State Law Goes Federal

In an earlier article, we talked about the case of Plessy vs Ferguson. Plessy was a man who wasn’t happy with the verdict handed down from the state court, so he took it to the Supreme Court.

This can happen to anyone. Let’s say, for instance, that there’s a woman who’s been screaming Bloody Mary, bloody Mary, bloody Mary! every night at midnight. Her neighbors don’t like it too much, so they bring charges against her. Something as simple as a noise ordinance violation.

The local court fines this woman, but she’s hot about it. She says that by fining her, the court has violated her right to free speech. She hires a good lawyer, and the court case is brought to the Federal courts.

Now, that’s an unlikely scenario. But it’s possible that when local matters pose a threat to the integrity of the Constitution, they can become Federal matters quite quickly.

Need a quick reference guide to federal, state and local laws? Here’s a general rundown of what court cases fall into each category.

Local Laws

Local laws include things like districting (think schools and the like), zoning, public works and even rent policy.

State laws

State laws encompass a lot of issues. These include:

  • Divorce, custody and alimony
  • Traffic matters
  • Most criminal matters
  • Real estate, property and wills
  • Workplace laws, including worker’s compensation
  • Most business and personal contracts
  • Welfare and other public services

Federal Laws

Federal laws generally cover a broader area. This includes:

  • Immigration law and citizenship
  • Bankruptcy and other credit issues
  • Copyrights, patents and other rights
  • Counterfeit
  • Many discrimination laws
  • Laws involving federal programs like Social Security


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