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The State and Federal Courts

If you need to consult with an attorney, please contact the Erie County Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service.

Our system of justice, both civil and criminal, depends on the courts to provide the forum in which disputes are resolved. There is a system of courts maintained by each of the fifty states, and also a somewhat parallel system of Federal courts throughout the country. In each system, matters are initially presented to a trial court and then one or more appellate courts within that system may review the decision of the trial court.

Some matters may only be considered by the State courts, and some only by the Federal courts. On the other hand, some matters can be taken before either a State court or a Federal court.

The State courts have jurisdiction to hear all violations of State criminal law and, on the civil side, disputes between parties that arise as a result of personal injuries, contracts, or any breach of duty under the common or statutory law of the States.

The Federal courts hear matters that relate to violations of Federal criminal law and, on the civil side, matters that relate to the United States Constitution, Federal statutes, admiralty or actions that arise under State law but involve citizens of different States. In addition, some causes of action created under Federal statutes permit the aggrieved party to bring his or her complaint before either a State court or Federal court. In certain instances, when a party files an action in State court which could have been brought in either the State or Federal courts, the opposing party may remove the action to the Federal court.

Cases within the State court system are initially heard by the trial court, which in Pennsylvania is the Court of Common Pleas of that judicial district. Appeals of the decision of the trial court go to either the Commonwealth Court or the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Claims involving agency decisions such as workers' compensation, zoning matters, and the like, go to the Commonwealth Court. Most matters involving criminal appeals and disputes between non-government parties go to the Superior Court. Thereafter, an aggrieved party can ask the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to review the decision reached by either the Superior Court or the Commonwealth Court. If the decision involves a Federal, constitutional, or statutory issue, an appeal from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania may also be taken to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Within the Federal court system, matters are initially heard by a District Court. Appeals from the decision of the District Court are heard by the Court of Appeals for the circuit in which that particular State is located. Pennsylvania is within the Third Circuit, whose Court of Appeals sits in Philadelphia. Appeals from the Court of Appeals go directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Whenever the filing of a complaint is contemplated, it is important to determine where proper jurisdiction lies; that is, in the State court or the Federal court. Also, in those instances where jurisdiction exists in both the State and Federal courts, it is important to fully consider the advantages of each as they relate to your particular case.  2/18