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Areas of Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction

In the United States, there are two separate and distinct jurisdictions.  One is the jurisdiction of the States within their own territorial boundaries and the other is the federal jurisdiction.  State jurisdiction includes the power to regulate, control and govern real and personal property, individuals and enterprises within the territorial boundaries of the State.  Federal jurisdiction, on the other hand, is extremely limited and is exercised only in areas granted to the Federal Government pursuant to the Constitution.

The term federal court actually refers to one of two types of courts.  The first type of court is known as an Article III court since these courts derive their power from Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  These courts include:

(1) the U.S. District Courts- There are 94 District Courts in the United States.  Every state has at least one district court.  Some large states, such as California, have as many as four District Courts.  The U.S. District Courts are trial courts or courts of original jurisdiction hearing both civil and criminal cases and therefore most federal cases begin here.

(2) the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal- There are 13 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal in the United States.  The Circuit Courts are divided into 12 regional circuits and are situated in various cities throughout the country.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the 13th Court) sits in Washington.  Generally in all cases except in criminal cases in which a defendant is found not guilty, any party who is dissatisfied with the judgment of a U.S. District Court (or the findings of certain administrative agencies) may appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in his/her geographical district.  These courts will only examine the trial record for only mistakes of law; the facts have already been determined by the U.S. District Court. Therefore, the court usually will neither review the facts of the case nor take any additional evidence.

(3) the U.S. Supreme Court- The Supreme Court of the United States sits at the apex of the federal court system.  The Supreme Court is presided over by the Chief Justice and consists in total of nine judges. The Supreme Court of the United states is situated in Washington, D.C.  Parties who are not satisfied with the decision of a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal (or, in rare cases, of a U.S. District Court) or a state supreme court can file a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.  Though the Supreme Court is primarily an appellate court, the Court does have original jurisdiction over cases involving ambassadors and two or more states.

They also include two special courts constituted under Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution.  These courts are special because, unlike the other courts, they are not courts of general jurisdiction which can hear almost any case.
(a) the U.S. Court of Claims – This court sits in Washington, D.C., and handles cases involving suits against the government.

(b) the U.S. Court of International Trade- This court sits in New York and handles cases involving tariffs and international trade disputes.

Article III, Section 2, of the United States Constitution lays down the jurisdiction of the federal courts.  Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction because they can hear only two main types of cases:

1. Diversity of Citizenship- Only federal courts have jurisdiction over a case of a civil nature in which parties are residents of different states and the amount in question exceeds the amount set by federal law (currently $75,000).  The federal courts are often required to apply state law when dealing with these cases since the issues concern matters of state law.  The fact that the parties are from different states and that the amount in question is high enough is what manages to get such cases into federal court.

2. Federal Question- Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases that arise under the U.S. Constitution, the laws of the United States, and the treaties made under the authority of the United States.  These issues are the sole prerogative of the federal courts and include the following types of cases:

  • Suits between states—Cases in which two or more states are a party.
  • Cases involving ambassadors and other high-ranking public figures—Cases arising between foreign ambassadors and other high-ranking public officials.
  • Federal crimes—Crimes defined by the U.S. Constitution or those defined and/or punished by federal statute.  Such crimes include treason against the United States, piracy, counterfeiting, crimes against the law of nations, and crimes relating to the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate commerce.
  • Bankruptcy—The statutory procedure, usually triggered by insolvency, by which a person is relieved of most debts and undergoes a judicially supervised reorganization or liquidation for the benefit of the person’s creditors.
  • Patent, copyright, and trademark cases
  • Patent—The exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a specified period (usually 17 years), granted by the federal government to the inventor if the device or process is novel, useful, and non-obvious.
    (2) Copyright—The body of law relating to a property right in an original work of authorship (such as a literary, musical, artistic, photographic, or film work) fixed in any tangible medium of expression, giving the holder the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, and display the work.
    (3) Trademark—A word, phrase, logo, or other graphic symbol used by a manufacturer or seller to distinguish its product or products from those of others.
  • Admiralty—The system of jurisprudence that has grown out of the practice of admiralty courts: courts that exercise jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses.
  • Antitrust—The body of law designed to protect trade and commerce from restraining monopolies, price fixing, and price discrimination.
  • Securities and banking regulation—The body of law protecting the public by regulating the registration, offering, and trading of securities and the regulation of banking practices.
  • Other cases specified by federal statute—Any other cases specified by an applicable federal statute.

In addition, the federal courts have jurisdiction over several other types of cases arising from acts of Congress. For example, the courts have jurisdiction in a wide variety of (1) civil rights, (2) labor relations, and (3) environmental cases.

With respect to some areas, both the federal court and state court has concurrent jurisdiction.

These concern the following points of law:

  • Diversity of Citizenship: In civil cases involving citizens of two or more states in which the dollar amount in question exceeds $75,000, a state court may hear the case if the defendant in the case does not petition to have the case removed to federal court. Furthermore, if a civil case involves two or more citizens of different states but the amount in question does not exceed $75,000, the case must be heard by a state court.
  • Federal Question: Any state court may interpret the U.S. Constitution, federal statute, treaty, etc., if the applicable Constitutional provision, statute, or treaty has direct bearing on a case brought in state court under a state law. However, by interpreting the U.S. Constitution, federal statute, or treaty, the state is subjecting itself to federal review. This means that after a state Supreme Court has acted on a case, the U.S. Supreme Court may review it. In such instances, the U.S. Supreme Court is concerned only with reviewing the state court’s interpretation of the applicable federal Constitutional provision, statute, or treaty. It does not review any matters of law that are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the state courts.

Inside Areas of Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction