The United States court system is comprised of a federal court system and 50 separate state court systems. Each is multi-tiered and each has its own structure. Some cases even start in a state court system and end up in the federal court system. So what are the differences between the two, and how do you know which court system your case will end up in?
Most legal issues take place in state trial courts, the lowest tiered courts in the state court system. Wisconsin has 69 such courts. These courts generally hear civil cases, juvenile cases, minor criminal cases, and traffic violations. They can also hear civil cases involving large amounts of money and more serious criminal cases, as well.
Cases that are appealed go up to state appellate courts to be decided. Wisconsin has four courts of appeals that are based on geographic location. While there are no trials in appellate court proceedings, these courts do review the decisions made by the trial courts. They will generally either uphold or reverse the decisions and can sometimes modify the amount of the monetary award given in the lower court. Occasionally, appellate courts will order a retrial to take place at the trial court level.
The court of last resort, typically called the state supreme court, is the highest court in the state court system. Very few cases get this far, but when they do, these decisions are almost always final. The Wisconsin Supreme Court reviews about 1,000 petitions per year, but only accepts approximately 100 – 120.
The U.S. Constitution only allows certain types of cases to be heard in federal courts. Generally, these cases involve issues of Constitutional law, issues between residents of different states, issues between U.S. citizens and foreign citizens, and issues that implicate both federal and state laws.
Federal courts are divided into districts and circuits. In the U.S., there are 94 judicial districts and 13 appellate circuits. Wisconsin has two district courts: the Western District of Wisconsin and the Eastern District of Wisconsin. These types of cases are generally civil cases that involve legal issues that fall within the jurisdiction of the federal government. On appeal, federal cases go to one of the U.S. Circuit Courts. Wisconsin falls within the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals along with Illinois and Indiana.
Like the state court system, the federal court system has a court of last resort. The United States Supreme Court is the end all be all of courts. They give the final word on the law in this country and take on very few cases each year, approximately 100 – 150 out of 7,000.
Most lawsuits that can be filed in federal court can also be filed in state court (but not necessarily vice-versa). In these circumstances, attorneys can take advantage of this option to select the most favorable court for the lawsuit that they are handling. This is known as forum shopping. There are many factors to consider when choosing between state and federal court: geographic location of the court, convenience to the client, differences in statutes of limitations, choice of judge, jury selection, etc.
Ascertaining which court in which to file a lawsuit can be complicated, but our attorneys at Levine Lyon & Eisberner, LLC can help. Call now for a free consultation at 1-888-367-8198.