State courts Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Courts that can hear cases subject to state constitutions and laws, in contrast to federal courts, established under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which hear cases involving federal law.

Much of the judicial activity that takes place in the United States falls within the jurisdiction of state courts, which range from traffic courts and police courts to state supreme courts. State courts hear cases that do not directly involve federal laws, although underlying every decision such courts reach is the mandate that there be no violation of the rights of plaintiffs as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which provides for a national court system.

The Supreme Court and State Courts

The sovereignty of states is a fundamental part of the U.S. system of government. States’ rights have been jealously and zealously guarded since the nation’s inception. Even those who favor a strong central government are generally convinced of the necessity of permitting states to reflect the cultural and societal norms of their various populations.

Under the independent and adequate state grounds doctrineIndependent and adequate state grounds doctrine articulated in Murdock v. Memphis[case]Murdock v. Memphis[Murdock v. Memphis] (1875), the Supreme Court must accept the interpretation by state courts of the constitutions of their particular states, although such interpretations must not violate the Constitution. In all matters where state laws conflict with federal mandates, judges are enjoined by law to uphold the federal mandates.

The Supreme Court does not review the decisions of state courts unless federal questions are introduced early in the proceedings so that such questions can be heard at every level of the state’s jurisdiction. The Court also denies petitions for the appeal of cases involving federal questions if the petitioners have failed to comply with the procedures and policies of the state courts. Further, the Court has ruled that it will consider no habeas corpus petitions until the petitioners have exhausted all remedies available to them at the state level.

The Court has final authority in accepting or rejecting cases that petitioners wish to bring before it. It accepts fewer than 10 percent of the state court cases it is asked to review. Some of the cases that come before the Court proceed from lower federal court decisions in cases that originated in state courts and later were transferred into the federal venue because they involved federal law.

Judicial Federalism

Relations between state courts and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, are referred to as judicial federalismJudicial federalism. This concept establishes a hierarchical structure of appeals and redress. The state courts, although they are established by the constitutions of their states and function under the legal codes of those states, are required under the law to give precedence to federal law if it conflicts with state law. The U.S. Constitution prevails in cases where a state constitution conflicts with it in some way.

Judicial federalism was established during John Marshall’s term as chief justice of the Court, which ran from 1801 to 1835. Resisting strong opposition from some state courts in the early years of the fledgling republic, Marshall fought for and won the right of the Court to be the final arbiter in deciding whether state laws were consistent with the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.

Although the Court has the ultimate and decisive power in adjudicating legal matters arising from state court decisions, it has generally been scrupulous in observing comity, or the courtesy that one jurisdiction accords another by upholding its laws. Comity is not legally imposed on the Court but has arisen because of its respect and historical deference to state courts. In some cases, such as Commonwealth v. Aves[case]Commonwealth v. Aves[Commonwealth v. Aves] (1836), comity has been set aside. In this case, the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts, a free state, released a slave brought from Louisiana to Massachusetts by a visitor. The Court found in favor of Massachusetts, rejecting arguments that this northern state should accord comity to the slave laws of Louisiana.

Division of Labor

From the nation’s beginnings until about 1920, state and federal courts existed side by side largely to distribute the judicial responsibilities and the labor involved in them in what seemed the most reasonable and manageable fashion. State courts were to enforce the laws and constitutional guarantees of the various states. Federal courts were to enforce the guarantees of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. The duties and jurisdiction of the two court systems were clearly if somewhat informally defined, and for the most part, each system enjoyed considerable autonomy.

Between 1920 and 1950, however, the Supreme Court began gradually to increase its supervision of state courts. It nullified the findings of a number of state court decisions, particularly those from southern states that reached the appellate level and were related to the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law.

The Court maneuvered around petitions from prisoners who had been convicted in state courts and sought the protection of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments that federal defendants were accorded. Rather than considering such cases in the light of the amendments cited, the Court, observing comity and acceding to the state courts’ jurisdiction, usually invoked the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and of a fair trial for defendants who did not have legal representation.

The Court did what it could to provide the state courts with the latitude they needed to operate effectively. In so doing, it articulated precepts of fundamental fairness and due process that were vague and subjective at best. The judges in many state courts made strenuous efforts to base their proceedings and decisions on legal precedents. Some judges, however, used the absence of definitive guidelines to promote their own social agendas.

Earl Warren and State Courts

Earl WarrenWarren, Earl served as chief justice of the United States from 1954 until 1969. The social upheaval that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and grew out of widespread discontent over the Vietnam War raged during the later years of Warren’s tenure.

Firmly committed to protecting the civil rights of Americans, Warren insisted that the Bill of Rights be applied to the nation’s state courts, many of which were dealing with the thorny issues of racial segregation, draft evasion, and civil disobedience. Warren’s resolve resulted in the Court’s overturning many decisions rendered by state appellate and supreme courts in regard to criminal defendants, especially those arrested for participating in public demonstrations related to race relations and the Vietnam War.

The Warren Court aroused the animus of nearly every state court justice in the United States. Warren’s violations of comity resulted in widespread calls for his impeachment, although what he was doing was protected by the provisions of Article III of the Constitution and provided no substantial grounds to warrant impeachment.

The Burger and Rehnquist Courts

After Warren’s retirement, Warren E. BurgerBurger, Warren E. was appointed chief justice, serving from 1969 until 1986. Under his leadership, the Court became less activist. It substantially abridged the impact of many of the Warren Court’s civil liberties decisions. Some state supreme courts, stung badly by the limitations the Warren Court had imposed on them, now sought to alter their state constitutions to provide broader protections from federal interference than had been available to them during Warren’s term of office.

The Burger court encouraged the new judicial federalism that such initiatives suggested. In time, however, the Court reversed many more state court decisions in cases involving civil liberties or, if not overturning these decisions, returned them to the state courts for further consideration, clearly indicating their unacceptability.

In the Burger Court and that of William H. Rehnquist,Rehnquist, William H. the next chief justice, there was a curtailment of lower federal court grants or habeas corpus petitions in matters relating to search and seizure and to the death penalty. Because federal courts now hear so few appeals from state prisoners, whose access to federal courts is denied much more often than it is permitted, the authority of state courts has been increased substantially.

State Court Defiance

Generally Court decisions are honored by the state courts, of which compliance is required under the law. Although compliance is the rule, exceptions occur. Often when state courts openly defy federal mandates, their defiance is overlooked. The Court sometimes makes efforts to placate state courts or to accommodate them. On rare occasions, the Court capitulates to a defiant state court. In deciding how to deal with defiance, the Court has to consider how much of its judicial energy it is willing to expend on the matter.

As early as 1821, in Cohens v. Virginia[case]Cohens v. Virginia[Cohens v. Virginia], the state court of Virginia challenged the appellate authority of the Supreme Court, citing section 25Judiciary Act of 1789;section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, under which the Court was granted the right to review federal questions decided on by state courts. In the Court’s decision, Marshall upheld the concept of federal supremacy.

In the late twentieth century, the Court granted state courts considerable time to implement mandates in regard to race relations and to clarify ambiguous rulings. It permitted state courts, after hearings at the highest state and federal judicial levels, to prevail in capital cases that involve complicated legal procedures. The Court at times was influenced substantially by state court decisions. It was particularly receptive to the guidance of state supreme courts in matters such as reapportionment, freedom of religion, defendants’ rights, and obscenity, where local considerations are of paramount importance. At times, state supreme court rulings directly affected decisions of the Supreme Court. The California high court’s decision in Purdy and Fitzpatrick v. State[case]Purdy and Fitzpatrick v. State[Purdy and Fitzpatrick v. State] (1969) ruled that according special treatment to aliens was a form of discrimination not permitted under the Fourteenth Amendment. Two years later, in a similar case, Graham v. Richardson[case]Graham v. Richardson[Graham v. Richardson] (1971), the Supreme Court reached an identical conclusion.

Although the relationship between state courts and the Supreme Court has frequently varied, the general preference of the Court is to grant as much leeway to the state courts as it reasonably can within the boundaries set by the U.S. Constitution. By shifting authority from federal to state courts as much as it legally is able to do, the Court makes its own workload manageable and reduces the number of appeals with which it has to deal.

Further Reading
  • One of the most useful essays on this topic by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., is entitled “Some Aspects of Federalism.” It appeared in the New York University Law Review 39 (1964): 945-961 and, despite its age, is highly relevant to the topic of state courts. Also informative is Human Rights in the States: New Directions in Constitutional Policymaking (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988), edited by Stanley H. Friedelbaum. A number of its essays provide solid insights into the creative tensions that exist between state and federal courts. Archibald Cox presents a fascinating and detailed account in The Warren Court: Constitutional Decision as an Instrument of Reform (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968) that sheds light on what an activist court can accomplish. G. Alan Tarr and Mary C. Porter delve into the functioning of state supreme courts and their relationship to the Supreme Court in State Supreme Courts in State and Nation (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990).

Bill of Rights

Cohens v. Virginia

Comity clause

Fourteenth Amendment

Graham v. Richardson

Judiciary Act of 1789

Marshall, John

Murdock v. Memphis

State constitutions

States’ rights and state sovereignty

Warren, Earl

Categories: History Content