Understanding the Structure of the American Court System: An overview for foreign lawyers contemplating litigation in U.S. courts

Some non-American lawyers with legal matters pending before courts in the United States find the U.S. Court system totally confusing. The thing about the structure of the American court system is that not even American lawyers fully understand it; and so foreign lawyers should not let themselves get frustrated about something that possibly could take a life-time to learn even if they were American trained lawyers.

Foreign lawyers who find themselves having to litigate in American courts would obviously have local counsel to assist them since as a general rule, a foreign lawyer cannot practice law in America without being admitted to one of the states’ bar. Still, even so, with the ever increasing number of international transactions most of which involve some type of contractual dispute, it is not totally unreasonable for a foreign lawyer to want to have a basic comprehension of the American court system. It helps in every way not the least of which is to help the foreign lawyer know the right questions to ask when interviewing local counsel for possible co-counsel work.

So what is this structure? Well, here is the short of it: there are essentially two court systems in America. The America judicial structure is divided into the State and Federal court systems.  Chances are, as an international lawyer, if you have to “avail” yourself of the Courts’ remedies in the United States, you will be in Federal court under the “Diversity of Citizenship” rules. That is, it is the Federal Courts, not the state courts, that normally hear cases involving foreign citizens and companies. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.

The reason the US has two court systems is because the Constitution of the United States requires it through its delegation of duties to the Federal government and its reservation of certain rights and duties to the State government. So there are some types of cases that either the Federal or state courts cannot “hear” constitutionally since they do not have “jurisdiction” over the “subject matter” of certain types of cases pursuant to the constitutional dictates. (Those are two nice “legal English” words: jurisdiction and “subject matter.”)

 Federal Court System

The federal court system in the U.S comprise of:

1. U.S. District Courts (there are 94 of these across the country; each state has at least one)

2. U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal (there are 13 circuit courts in the U.S. New York is in the 2nd Circuit)

3. The United States Supreme Court (there is only one federal supreme court in the U.S )

4. U.S Court of International Trade (This court handles international trade disputes)

5. U.S. Court of Claims (this court handles claims against the U.S Government)

6. U.S Bankruptcy Courts (This court handles cases falling under the bankruptcy code of the United States)

7. U.S. Magistrate Courts

8.  U.S. Tax Court (This court handles Tax cases where there are “tax deficiencies”)

9. U.S. Courts of Military Appeals

10. U.S Courts of Veterans Appeal (this court handles cases where there is a denial of veterans’ benefits)


State Courts System

The state courts in the U.S are generally broken into four types of courts:

1)  Trial Courts of limited jurisdiction (probate, family, traffic, juvenile, small claims, municipal)

2. Trial Courts of General jurisdiction (civil and criminal cases)

3. Intermediate Appellate Courts

4. Highest State Courts*


Generally speaking, if you are  foreign lawyer who finds him or herself in an American court, chances are you will have to hire local counsel in the U.S to assist you with litigating the matter since you must be a member of the state bar (both state and federal) in order to appear before an American court. Moreover, you will not likely be in state court since it is the Federal court that has jurisdiction to hear “diversity of citizenship cases.” However, even with the diversity rule, your case must be alleging a cause of action in excess of $75,000 in order to be eligible for Federal court jurisdiction over the subject matter of your case.

However, even if you do not have a diversity of citizenship or do not meet the $75,000 minimum criteria, if your case involves a “federal question” you may be able to bring the case in federal court. A Federal question is  any matter specifically designated in the U.S. Constitution as being the “province” of the federal government. This includes such issues as patent, copyright and trademark cases, antitrust, securities and banking regulations, and cases involving ambassadors and other high ranking public figures.

That all said, it should be noted that there is much interplay between the two courts. In other words, certain variables in particular cases could blur the line between federal jurisdiction and state jurisdiction and so a case whose subject matter would normally be the province of a state court jurisdiction, conceivably could wind up in federal court, and vice versa. For example, a class action seeking more than $5 million dollars will probably be heard in federal court even if there is no federal question involved.

Source: Understanding Federal and State Courts: www.uscourts.gov

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