Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 20, 2013

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Among the many protections set in place by the US constitution are limitations on exactly what federal court has jurisdiction over. These protections were established in Article III of the Constitution, and limited the power of the Federal government (and the federal court system). Because the founders of the country wanted to ensure that too much power was not concentrated in a strong federal government, the state courts actually have more rights to hear different cases than the federal courts do. So, the answer to what the different state cases handle is fairly broad- they are courts of “general” jurisdiction and can hear cases that deal with everything that the federal courts don’t have an exclusive right to deal with. 

Understanding State Court Power

The kind of cases that a court gets to hear are determined by the “subject matter jurisdiction” that the court has. A federal court has exclusive jurisdiction (i.e. is the only court that gets to hear) cases arising out of the US Constitution, as well as some other limited types of cases like bankruptcy cases and tax cases. Other than these limited excepts, state courts can handle pretty much everything else. 

Thus, state courts get to hear cases about, among other things:

  • Family law issues (divorce, adoption, child custody, etc.)
  • Criminal matters
  • Wills and trusts
  • Property disputes

State courts can sometimes even hear cases where federal laws are involved, as long as there isn’t “exclusive” federal jurisdiction. This means if you have a case, there is a good chance it’s going to be heard in a state court unless there are special circumstances. 

Within the states, the courts generally operate under a two-or three-tier system, so you may have a few different courts that you can bring your case in. For example, Small Claims or Municipal Court might have jurisdiction over disputes where less than $5,000 is at stake, while the County Court or District Court may hear controversies where the amount at issue is up to $25,000 and Superior Court may hear controversies in excess of $25,000

If you are confused about what court you should bring your case in, it is always in your best interests to talk to a lawyer.