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American Judicial System: Federal Caseload

Federal cases usually involve "federal questions" or "diversity of citizenship."

What kinds of cases dofederal courts hear?

Answer Federal courts can hear and decide those cases over which the Constitution gives them authority. Legal disputes that can be heard by federal judges are referred to in the Constitution as "cases or controversies." There are two main sources of cases or controversies that come before the federal courts: those with a "federal question" and those that involve "diversity of citizenship."

Federal question jurisdiction is the federal courts' power to hear cases involving the interpretation and application of the U.S. Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties. Federal courts hear cases that involve the U.S. government, as well as controversies between the U.S. and a foreign government and those between the states.

Litigants also may bring cases to federal court based on "diversity of citizenship," which means that all persons on one side of the case are citizens of states different from all persons on the other side.

Diversity jurisdiction also includes cases between U.S. citizens and those of another country. Diversity jurisdiction is critical for citizens because it ensures that out-of-state litigants forced into the state court of their opponent can avoid the reality or perception of local bias. Allowing those parties to have their claim heard in a federal court guarantees impartiality.

An important limit to diversity jurisdiction is that any case filed in federal court on the basis of diversity of citizenship must involve more than $75,000 in potential damages. Claims below that amount without another basis for federal jurisdiction must be filed in state court. And litigants always are free to take their claims to state court, regardless of the amount of money.

Congress has also given the federal courts concurrent jurisdiction with state courts over certain matters, such as crimes involving drugs.

Federal Judicial Caseload
Source: Understanding the Federal Courts, Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

How does one file a case in federal court?

Answer To begin a suit, an individual or corporation, known as the plaintiff, files a written document called a complaint with the clerk of a federal district court and "serves" a copy of the complaint on the defendant--that is, a copy of the complaint is handed to the defendant or to someone at his or her home or office. The complaint describes the plaintiff's injury, explains how the defendant caused the injury and asks the court to order relief.

In filing a civil suit, a plaintiff may, among other things, seek money damages to compensate for the injury or may ask the court for an injunction, which orders the defendant to stop the conduct that is causing the harm.

Parties beginning a civil action in a federal district court must pay a filing fee, which currently is set at $150. Those who are unable to pay the filing fee may apply to proceed in forma pauperis (in the manner of a pauper). If permission is granted, they may sue without paying costs.

Source: Title 28, U.S.Code, Section 1914. Understanding the Federal Courts, Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

What if I have a criminal claim against a person?

Answer As in state courts, individuals do not file criminal charges in federal courts. The government, usually the U.S. Attorney's Office, is responsible for initiating criminal proceedings in federal district courts and for prosecuting federal crimes. An aggrieved individual should file a complaint with the local U.S. Attorney's Office. He or she may also be able to bring a civil suit for damages arising out of the same conduct.

Source Federal Judiciary Homepage

Does the federal government bring civil cases?

Answer Yes. The Civil Division of the Department of Justice represents the government in civil cases and is, in fact, the most frequent litigant in the federal court system. Its cases involve government activities ranging from the defense of challenges to presidential actions, national security issues, benefit programs and energy policies to such commercial issues as contract disputes, banking insurance, patents, fraud and debt collection. One of its best-known current cases is its massive antitrust action against software giant Microsoft.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice webpage Reprinted by permission from Facts About the American Judicial System. Copyright )1999 American Bar Association. All rights reserved.
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