State & Federal Courts

Both the state of Illinois and the federal government maintain court systems to settle legal disputes. This discussion explains how each system is structured and provides some guidance for determining whether a matter is filed in state court or federal court.

 

Federal courts. The federal courts hear both criminal and civil cases. The federal system has three levels, one trial court level and two appellate court levels. The trial court level, where complaints are filed and where the actual trials occur, is called the district court because the federal system is divided into districts. Illinois has three districts: the Northern District (Chicago), the Central District (Springfield), and the Southern District (East St. Louis).

 

The losing party can appeal the case to the next level (except that the prosecution in a criminal case cannot appeal a not-guilty verdict), an appellate level called the Court of Appeals. This level is divided into 11 circuits. Illinois is in the Seventh Circuit, with Indiana and Wisconsin. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sits in Chicago.

 

The role of the Court of Appeals is to examine the record of the lower court proceeding for reversible error. All of the records from the lower court proceeding, such as transcripts of the testimony and other evidence introduced at trial, are sent to the Court of Appeals for their review. The Court of Appeals does not conduct a new trial. Instead, it usually hears oral arguments from the attorneys for both sides. After hearing the arguments and reviewing the record, the Court will either affirm or reverse the lower court decision (it can affirm some parts and reverse others). In some cases, it will remand the proceedings back to the lower court for a new trial. If it refuses to hear an appeal, the decision of the lower court will be final.

 

The losing party in the Court of Appeals can appeal the case to the third and final level, the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, which sits in Washington, D.C., hears only a small percentage of the cases appealed to it because of the high volume of cases appealed each year. Generally, it will agree to hear those cases that give it the chance to resolve disagreements between Circuits or the opportunity to weigh in on matters of national interest, such as abortion or affirmative action. If it refuses to hear the case, the decision of the lower court is final.

 

State courts. The Illinois courts, like the federal courts, have three levels. It begins at the Circuit Court level, where civil lawsuits, criminal complaints, and other matters are filed. In Illinois, there are 22 judicial circuits. The Circuit Court level is where complaints are filed and where the actual trials occur, which means that the parties present witnesses and other evidence, often before juries.

 

The losing side at the trial court level can appeal the case (except that the prosecution in a criminal case cannot appeal a not-guilty verdict). The appeal would go to the second level, the Appellate Court. There are five districts, one in Cook County and four more spread over the other 101 counties, at courthouses in Elgin, Ottawa, Springfield, and Mount Vernon.

 

The role of the Appellate Court is to examine the record of the lower court proceeding for reversible error. All of the records from the lower court proceeding, such as transcripts of the testimony and other evidence introduced at trial, are sent to the Appellate Court for their review. The Appellate Court does not conduct a new trial. Instead, it usually hears oral arguments from the attorneys for both sides. After hearing the arguments and reviewing the record, the Court will either affirm or reverse the lower court decision (it can affirm some parts and reverse others). In some cases, it will remand the proceedings back to the lower court for a new trial. If it refuses to hear an appeal, the decision of the lower court will be final.

 

Appeals from the Appellate Court are made to the third and final level, the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in Illinois. Like the Appellate Court, the Supreme Court hears oral arguments and reviews the lower court record for reversible error. Also like the Appellate Court, where the Court refuses to hear an appeal, the decision of the lower court is final.

 

For more information about the Illinois courts, see Illinois Judicial Systems.

 

Jurisdiction. The federal courts have jurisdiction over three types of cases: those involving a federal law, those involving an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and those involving citizens of different states, but only if more than $75,000 in damages is sought. Bankruptcy, for example, is based on federal law and, in fact, bankruptcy courts exist within the federal system to handle those matters. The federal courts are also where new citizens are sworn in.

 

The state courts pretty much have jurisdiction over all matters that don't fall into one of three categories outlined above. Whether an Illinois court has jurisdiction, as opposed to, say, a state court in Minnesota, depends upon the facts of the case and where the parties live. Illinois courts have jurisdiction over all matters involving real property located in Illinois. In addition, they have jurisdiction over incidents occurring in Illinois and over matters involving Illinois citizens.

 

Thus, Illinois courts would have no jurisdiction over an action involving an auto accident in Texas between a California resident and a New York resident. In some cases, more than one state could have jurisdiction over a case. Where that situation exists, the party bringing the suit has a choice of where to file the suit.

 

Venue. Venue is a concept related to jurisdiction that refers to where within a jurisdiction a case should be filed. Thus, if the Illinois courts have jurisdiction over a suit, venue is the question of where within Illinois the case should be file (the same concept applies in the federal courts). Again, the decision turns on where the property is located, where the incident occurred, or where the parties live. Where venue is appropriate in more than one location, the party bringing the suit has a choice of where to file the suit.


This IS NOT intended to be legal advice or in any way replace the advice and judgment of a licensed lawyer. Every case and situation is unique and only a licensed lawyer can offer legal advice which is appropriate for your situation