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Nov 25, 2019

Federal Court vs. State Courts

If you’ve been arrested for a federal crime, it’s natural to wonder about the similarities and differences between federal court vs. state courts. You might also be curious about the similarities and differences between state criminal defense lawyers and federal criminal defense attorneys. There are many ways that federal courts mimic the functions of state courts, but there are also ways that the two court systems diverge.

How Federal Courts Work

The federal court system is an outgrowth of the U.S. Constitution. Article III creates the third branch of the U.S. government, namely the federal judiciary. It establishes the U.S. Supreme Court and empowers Congress to create lower courts. There are three types of federal courts: 94 District Courts, 13 Courts of Appeals, and one Supreme Court. There are also a few other types of federal courts that handle specific types of cases, such as the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Court of Claims, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Federal civil and criminal cases are filed in District Court.

If a criminal defendant is found guilty in District Court and believes that the law was incorrectly applied, then they can turn to the U.S. Court of Appeals in their jurisdiction. Alameda County’s federal appellate court is the Ninth Circuit. If the Court of Appeals agrees with the defendant, the Court will overturn the lower court’s decision. In a civil case, either the plaintiff or defendant can appeal a District Court’s decision to the Court of Appeals. In a civil case, the appellate court may let the lower court’s ruling stand, or they may overturn the lower court’s ruling. If the District Court dismissed the case, the appellate court may decide to send it back to the District Court to be adjudicated.

If an appellant is dissatisfied with the decision by the Court of Appeals, then they can appeal that decision to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court rules on whether or not laws are constitutional and settles disagreements about whether or not laws were applied appropriately. The Supreme Court receives about 7,000 requests each year to review appellate court decisions, and accepts between 100 and 150 cases. If the Court declines to hear a case, the previous court’s ruling stands. The Supreme Court’s term lasts from the first Monday in October through late June. Cases are argued before the Supreme Court’s nine members at some point during the term, and the justices issue a majority opinion – sometimes with concurring and dissenting opinions – for each case prior to the close of a term.

District Court cases are heard by a single judge and, sometimes, a jury. Juries are not part of the appellate court; cases there are heard by a panel of three judges. At the Supreme Court level, there are no witnesses and there is no jury; attorneys for each side make their arguments directly to the panel of nine justices.

How California’s State Courts Work

As with federal courts, California state courts have three types of courts. Cases – whether criminal or civil – enter the court system in one of 58 California Superior Courts. There is one Superior Court for each of California’s 58 counties, though each county can have several court buildings. For example, Alameda County Superior Court has ten different locations: Alameda, Berkeley, Dublin, Fremont, Hayward, two in San Leandro, and three in Oakland.

Throughout California, there are 1,743 Superior Court judges. As with federal District Court, a case entering California Superior Court will be heard before one judge and, sometimes, a jury. More than 6.1 million cases are filed in California Superior Courts each year.

If a criminal defendant or either party in a civil suit is dissatisfied with a Superior Court’s verdict, they can file an appeal with a Court of Appeal in one of California’s six appellate districts. The 1st District Court of Appeal, in San Francisco, has jurisdiction over Alameda County cases. There are six divisions in the 1st District Court of Appeal. As with federal appellate courts, the California Court of Appeal doesn’t hear witness testimony or accept evidence. Instead, they hear oral arguments and review material from the Superior Court case. Unlike federal court, where an appellate court’s decision is binding only to that circuit’s District Courts, California appellate court decisions are binding to all state Superior Courts.

Like the federal court system, California has a Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court is made up of a chief justice and six associate justices. All death penalty cases are automatically reviewed by the California Supreme Court. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, California’s Supreme Court receives about 7,000 filings each year; it issues opinions in about 85 of those cases.

Judicial Appointments in Federal Court vs. State Courts

For federal courts, all judges and justices – from U.S. District Court to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court – are appointed by the President and are confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Federal judgeships are lifetime appointments. Typically, a President consults with the U.S. Senators from the state where the vacancy has occurred. Then, the candidate is vetted by the FBI, the American Bar Association, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Next, the federal bench nominee is the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, during which Committee members ask the nominee questions.

If the Senate Judiciary Committee votes the nominee out of committee, then the Senate majority leader schedules a vote of the U.S. Senate. Nominees are either approved by unanimous consent of all 100 senators, or are approved by a simple majority in a vote.

In California, the Governor usually initially appoints Superior Court judges, although they can be directly elected by county residents. Superior Court judges who are appointed by the Governor, as well as Appeals Court judges and Supreme Court Justices, are assessed by the California Bar Association’s California Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and confirmed by the California Commission on Judicial Appointments.

Unlike in the federal judicial system, California judges and justices retain their seats through elections. The term of a Superior Court judge is six years, while the terms of  Court of Appeals judges and Supreme Court justices are 12 years.

Criminal Cases in Federal Court vs. State Courts

While the federal court system and California court system have many parallels, the process of navigating a criminal case through the federal court system differs significantly from the state courts. That’s why, if you’re facing trial on a federal crime, it’s critical to have a Bay Area federal criminal defense attorney at your side. An Alameda County federal criminal defense lawyer understands the federal court process and has the experience to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.

In California state court, a case usually begins with an arrest. Once you’re arrested, the police write a report that includes a description of the evidence and witness accounts. After your arrest, you may be held in jail or released on bail or on your own recognizance. Next, a prosecutor from the Alameda County District Attorney’s office reviews the arrest report and decides whether or not to file charges, and if so, which charges to file. If you’re charged with a crime, you’ll have an arraignment in court, during which you’ll be informed of the charges and your rights, and given an opportunity to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If you’ve been in custody since your arrest, the judge will set bail, release you on your own recognizance, or send you back to jail to await trial.

In federal court, a felony criminal trial isn’t triggered by an arrest. Instead, federal law enforcement agencies – such as the FBI, the DEA, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives – investigate crimes and then present the results of their investigations to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. There are 94 U.S. Attorney offices, one for each of the federal judicial districts.

The U.S. Attorney is similar to the Alameda County District Attorney, in that they have discretion about whether or not to prosecute a case. However, if a U.S. Attorney wants to file felony charges in federal court, the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment requires that they first present their evidence to a grand jury, consisting of 16 to 23 jurors. Unlike a jury trial in a courtroom, a grand jury meets in secrecy and without a judge present. Instead, the prosecution presents its case – both evidence and witness testimony – to the grand jury. If the grand jury feels that there is probable cause that the person committed the felony, then the grand jury returns an indictment. Once the U.S. Attorney has the indictment, they can file charges in federal court. It’s important to note that the standard for indictment – probable cause – is lower than the standard for conviction – beyond a reasonable doubt.

You may be arrested for a federal crime, either for a misdemeanor or prior to a felony indictment. Similar to state court in California, if you’ve been arrested you will have an arraignment. There, you will be told the charges against you and your rights, and have the opportunity to enter your plea.

The remainder of the trial process in federal courts vs. state courts is quite similar. Many cases are resolved by plea agreement, but those that do go to trial may be before a jury or simply before a judge. If the trial results in an acquittal, you are free to go. If it results in conviction, you will be sentenced by the judge. A sentence can include incarceration, fines, restitution, alternative sentencing, or probation.

Federal Crimes

Federal courts handle a plethora of federal crimes too numerous to list. They include:

Weapons charges: Dealing in firearms without a license, selling to underage buyers, or developing biological or chemical weapons

Drug charges: Manufacturing, distributing, or possessing heroin, cocaine, LCD, methamphetamine, or marijuana

Counterfeiting charges: Creating a printing plate, forging court seals, or removing a vehicle identification number

Embezzling: Stealing by bank employees or embezzling from a program that receives federal money

Child Pornography: Creating, distributing, receiving, transmitting, or possessing child pornography

Racketeering: Racketeering charges can be brought in many types of cases, including organized crime, pirated intellectual property, and securities fraud

Perjury: Lying under oath to the FBI, Congress, a court officer, or other federal official

Kidnapping: Transporting a kidnapped person across state lines, taking hostages, or possessing a ransom

The Role of a Federal Criminal Lawyer

If you’re in Alameda County and have been charged with a federal crime, believe you’re under investigation for a federal crime, or have been indicted by a grand jury, you need an Alameda County federal criminal lawyer. A federal criminal defense attorney understands the federal court system and the resources that the federal government brings to bear in federal criminal proceedings. Your federal criminal attorney can guide you through the investigation, grand jury, indictment, and trial phases of your case. An  experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can undercut the prosecution’s case and argue for a dismissal. If that’s not possible, then they are well-positioned to negotiate a plea agreement to lesser charges – and lesser penalties – on your behalf. They can also bring your case to trial and, hopefully, to an acquittal. If the U.S. Attorney’s office secures a conviction, your federal criminal attorney can turn to a higher court to appeal your case.

Considering the amount of leverage the federal government has, time is of the essence. If you’re facing federal criminal charges, you need a seasoned federal criminal attorney to represent you. You need Silver Law Firm.



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