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Criminal Defense: Federal v. State Court Cases

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

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At The Zabriskie Law Firm, our Salt Lake City criminal defense attorneys are equipped to handle cases in State and Federal Court. Many people are confused as to the difference between these two types of cases, so we’re here to help explain the differences as well as some of the similarities.

The Utah state government and the U.S. federal government are two separate entities and therefore have two distinct court systems, although the federal system of government shares power at the national and state level.

Judges that oversee State Courts are also selected differently than judges that oversee Federal Courts. According to the U.S. Constitution, the President directly chooses federal judges. Nominations are then confirmed by the Senate. Most hold this office for life. State Court judges, on the other hand, can be elected or appointed, depending on the state, and serve in that position for varying lengths of time.

An overwhelming majority of criminal defense cases are heard in State Court, but this does not mean that some are not heard in Federal Court. Primarily, Federal Court is the arena for cases that deal with constitutional issues, bankruptcy, etc. Criminal cases heard in Federal Court are cases in which the defendant is accused of violating federal law.

In the United States, there are three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. The judicial branch of government is further divided into two categories: State and Federal. While distinct, they are not completely separate from one another.

The area of overlap is what causes the most confusion. For example, many federal laws are also state laws. The issue is not always black and white.

Both State and Federal Courts have different levels. For example, the Federal Court system is structured first with the trial courts. The federal trial courts are the U.S. District Courts. If a verdict decided in a U.S. District Court is appealed, it can be heard in a U.S. Court of Appeals. Some cases even make their way to the very top of the judicial system, the United States Supreme Court.

In a similar fashion, criminal cases are first heard in a Utah State Court. If the defendant does not agree with the verdict and they have sufficient grounds, they can appeal in a Utah Court of Appeals. Each state also has its own Supreme Court. Although it is rare, some criminal cases might be heart in Utah Supreme Court.

For further information on the differences between State and Federal Courts, you can visit the U.S. Courts website for a complete breakdown.

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