Federal and State Court Systems: What You’ll Find Where

By Wholesale Screening Solutions |

Federal and State Court Systems: What You’ll Find Where

Your customers look to you, as a Consumer Reporting Agency (CRA), to be an expert on all topics related to employment screening. But let’s face it, the U.S. court system is complex, and the commonalities and differences between state courts versus federal courts – and their accompanying records – aren’t always easy to understand.

In this blog, we hone in on the distinctions between the federal and state court systems so that you’re better prepared to answer clients’ questions.

A Tale of Two Systems

The United States Constitution created a system of government in which power is shared between the federal government and the state governments. The federal government and each state government have their own court systems, which differ in structure, types of cases adjudicated, and judicial selection.


Federal Court System

Article III of the Constitution assigns the judicial power of the United States to the federal court system, through the creation of the U.S. Supreme Court. It also gives Congress the authority to create the lower federal courts, which currently include:

  • 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals
  • 94 U.S. District Courts
  • the U.S. Court of Claims
  • the U.S. Court of International Trade

In addition, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts handle bankruptcy cases, and Magistrate Judges handle some District Court matters.

Parties dissatisfied with a decision of a U.S. District Court, the U.S. Court of Claims, and/or the U.S. Court of International Trade may appeal to a U.S. Court of Appeals.

A party may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court is generally under no obligation to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court is the final authority on federal constitutional questions.

The State Court System

The U.S. Constitution and the laws of each state establish the state courts. The highest court of the state is the State Supreme Court, followed by:

  • most states have a Court of Appeals, also called the appellate court
  • state trial courts, sometimes referred to as Circuit or District Courts

In addition, many states also have courts that handle specific legal matters (e.g., probate court for wills and estates; juvenile court; family court, etc..).

When parties are dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court, they may take their case to the intermediate Court of Appeals. They also have the option to ask the highest state court to hear the case.

Only certain cases are eligible for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Types of Cases Handled


The federal courts adjudicate cases involving:

  • the constitutionality of a law (e.g., freedom of speech, due process, right to bear arms)
  • the laws and treaties of the U.S. (e.g., with other nations, Native Americans)
  • disputes between two or more states
  • ambassadors and public ministers
  • admiralty law (maritime matters), bankruptcy, and Habeas Corpus issues (imprisonment legalities)


State courts generally handle the following types of cases:

  • criminal
  • probate (involving wills and estates)
  • contract cases
  • tort cases (personal injuries)
  • family law (marriages, divorces, adoptions)

State courts are the final arbiters of state laws and constitutions. Their interpretation of federal law or the U.S. Constitution may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which may or may not hear such cases.

Key Reference Points

When fielding questions from your customers, the following reference points might help you.

Federal Criminal Records:

  1. The Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is the national index for U.S. District Courts, bankruptcy, and appellate courts. It holds more than 500 million documents.
  2. Employers tend to use this type of background check to meet regulatory requirements for financial services, government or executive-level hires, or for positions of trust or those that handle sensitive data.
  3. Federal violations that may be uncovered include fraud offenses, embezzlement, money laundering, sex crimes, or bribery.
  4. Federal searches do NOT include FBI or Department of Justice records as only law enforcement agencies and certain private industries can access FBI data.
  5. Federal criminal records will not be uncovered in a traditional criminal background check. Your customers will need to request them separately.

State Criminal Records:

  1. State records are drawn from searchable state law enforcement databases, generally reported by county or jurisdiction.
  2. State criminal records can reveal felony convictions, misdemeanors, bench warrants, and other local-level court actions.
  3. Not all counties report into their state.

At Wholesale Screening Solutions, we strive to provide you the knowledge and tools you need to provide the best possible service to your clients. Let us know how we can help you!

Wholesale Screening Solutions
About Wholesale Screening Solutions
Wholesale Screening Solutions is the go-to source of vital data for employment screening, tenant screening, and risk mitigation service providers nationwide. Combining innovative technology and deep human insight, Wholesale Screening delivers unique value to enable better, more efficient decision making and greater compliance.