During my career I worked ten years in the state courts of Wisconsin and Oregon and twenty-eight years in the U.S. federal courts in Arizona, Eastern Virginia, and New Mexico.  Many times I have been asked about whether there were any differences between working as a court administrator in these two jurisdictional levels, especially by people in the state courts who were considering applying for a job in the federal courts.  Here is a summary of what I think are the key points, focusing on the administrative sphere.

The most important thing to recognize is that a court is a court, no matter the jurisdiction.  The basic administrative functions exist across the board, including:  human resources (including recruitment, training, classification/compensation & benefits), finance and budget/procurement, technology, records, facilities, security, intergovernmental & public relations, and perhaps most important, the care and feeding of judges (the subject of another blog post?!).  As an administrator you deal with all these functions on a regular basis.

But, nonetheless there can be substantive differences between working in the federal and state courts in the United States:[i]

  1. Resources. Appropriations and other revenues supporting the federal courts are, in general, much better.[ii]  This translates into higher salaries and better benefits for staff, better facilities, more extensive and modern technological systems, and so on.
  2. Scale. The federal courts have a national perspective, with over 20,000 employees.  There is a well-established and strong Administrative Office of the Courts that supports the system, as well as the Federal Judicial Center which provides national education/training and research services.[iii]  When you go to meetings or training sessions, you may be traveling across the country (especially to Washington, DC!) instead of to the state capital a few hours away.
  3. Governance. Although there is a strong AO/national perspective, there is a surprisingly high degree of decentralized management and autonomy at the circuit and district level in the federal courts.  This is similar to state courts, which surprises many.  In the HR area, for example, the federal courts all set their own personnel policies (within very limited or broad national laws/requirements), all staff are “at will” and unions are not legally allowed.  On the other  hand, in state courts the administrator is usually much more involved in budget formulation and presentation to legislative bodies – in the federal courts the budget formulation is largely the result of formulas and almost all of the interaction with Congress is by the AO and the chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget.
  4. The selection and terms of office of judges are widely different across state court systems, in contrast to the federal courts, where there are only two categories (Article I and III).   Many state courts have elected judges (whether via partisan, non-partisan, or retention elections), a few state courts have life-tenured judges and many state courts have purely appointed judges, while all federal judges are appointed.  Most federal judges are presidential appointees with life terms (primarily Supreme, Circuit, and District Court judges under Article III of the Constitution), while Magistrate and Bankruptcy Court judges are appointed by District and Circuit Court judges to 8 and 14 year terms, respectively.  The point to make here is that as a court administrator, it does make a difference how the judges you work with are selected and hold office.  For example (and this is a big one), is it a highly political environment or not?  Typically, the longer judges are appointed the less political the environment; courts with elected judges tend to have a much more political environment.
  5. Judicial Independence. The degree to which courts are institutionally independent of the other branches of government varies widely among state courts, and those that are not particularly independent[iv] stand in contrast to the federal courts, which are very independent.  Also, life-tenured federal Article III judges (and judicially-appointed Article I judges) are well-insulated from undue external pressures.
  6. Types of cases. Although the state courts handle the vast majority of cases, the federal courts (which are all limited jurisdiction courts) proportionally handle a higher number of bigger, more important cases that often have national import.[v]
  7. Prestige. Add together the above points, and the result is federal courts are deemed by most people to be more prestigious (whether that is true or not) than the state courts.

So, is there any difference between the U.S. federal and state courts?  Yes, for sure, but do not forget my first point that a court is a court.  The resolution of disputes is at the core of what we do in the courts, and although local conditions may vary (a lot!), administering a court comes down to a very similar range of duties and responsibilities, no matter what court you may work in.

As always, please submit your comments or questions– I’d love to hear about your experiences, especially if you have worked in both state and federal courts.

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[i] At this point I must point out that the United States has a huge number and variety of courts, so I make general observations at my peril.  This is primarily because the label “state courts” encompasses everything from Supreme Courts to local municipal and justice courts, general to limited jurisdiction, and so on – and no two state court systems are identical among the 50 states.  And, on its face the federal courts look like they have a simple, universal structure across the 94 districts and 11 (plus DC) circuits – as well as the specialized courts like the Court of International Trade or the Tax Court, but there are significant organizational differences from court to court as the federal courts are quite decentralized in many ways.  It is no wonder that many people in other countries, especially those which have relatively simple court structures (e.g., only federal courts), may have a hard time understanding the U.S. courts.

[ii] There are exceptions to these broad assertions, such as salary levels in some states and locations.

[iii] Again, there are exceptions at the state level, with very strong and well-established AO’s and central training offices.

[iv] For instance, in many local, limited jurisdiction state courts (e.g., municipal courts) the lines between the branches of government are quite blurred in the areas of staffing and budgets.

[v] For example: civil rights, class-action torts, admiralty, racketeering, immigration, bankruptcy.  On the other hand, a little-known fact is federal courts also can handle routine traffic cases that arise on federal land, like national parks.

4 thoughts on “Federal vs. State Courts: is there any difference?

  1. Good summary, Norm. Would make a good addition to any basic court administration course or document. Suzanne James

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Norman for the great descriptions of Federal vs. State Courts. Having worked in both, I would add these to the descriptors:

    1) federally and nationally “driven” initiatives in the Federal Courts, and locally/regionally/state driven initiatives in the State Courts. This however minimizes appreciation of the sources of great innovations that come from individual federal districts and initiatives that arise from local and state courts’ involvement in national work-groups and task forces or individual process reengineering , and

    2) subtle differences in the pressure for and pace of handing case volumes, since the magnitude of cases filed (actual numbers of cases initiated) may be less in the Federal Courts than in the State Courts.

    It is ultimately beneficial for court leaders from both groups of courts to share information, interact and learn from one another – I know I have benefited greatly from friendships and colleagues in both the Federal and State Court systems.

    Liked by 2 people

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