Between local laws, state laws, federal laws, and the courts that dictate them, the U.S. judicial system can be a complicated one. The sheer number of laws that help run our country can be overwhelming, especially if you find yourself facing prosecution for violating one.

Each state is a sovereign entity, but we are all part of one nation, so in the United States Constitution, the founders of our country classified laws by jurisdiction in an effort to limit the powers of both federal and state authorities. For this reason, jurisdictional powers exist to help define who – or what body of government – can make and enforce a law.

There are certain rights that are given to each individual state to determine for its residents and visitors and others that are handled at a national level. This means that laws may differ from state to state, which is why it is important to find a certified attorney in the state in which you are charged – one not certified there may not be familiar with that state’s particular nuances.

There are some scenarios in which both federal and state courts have jurisdiction. In these instances, the parties involved may choose whether they want to go to state or federal court.

Federal Courts and Laws

Federal laws are applicable to every person in the United States – citizen and visitor alike. These national laws are made and upheld by the United States Congress, our federal legislature.

Federal courts can only try types of cases that are listed in the federal statutes and affect the country as a whole. They mostly only hear cases regarding Constitutional violations or violations of federal laws, cases between states, cases in which the United States is a party involved, and copyright, bankruptcy, patent and maritime law cases.

Typically if federal and state laws overlap, the case in question will go to state court, depending on the seriousness of the crime. In certain circumstances, individuals can be prosecuted in both state and federal court without it being considered Double Jeopardy.

State Courts and Laws

Every state has its own laws and court systems. Commonwealths (Virginia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Pennsylvania) and territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands) also have their own laws and court systems.

Most cases involving individual citizens – for example, robbery and family law – are handled in state courts. State laws are always applicable within that state, which means that if you are just visiting or driving through, you will be under that state’s law while within state borders.

North Carolina’s state laws can be found in detail here:

Local Laws

Local laws are specific to individual counties, towns, municipalities, cities, townships and villages. Many have their own court systems and laws to handle such issues as rental laws, zoning and local safety procedures.

Federal laws supersede state and local laws. State laws supersede local laws. Because the U.S Constitution never mentions local governments, there have been questions regarding local laws.

Dillon’s Rule, a rule based on court decisions in the 1860s, states the state must grant specific legislative powers to a particular municipality in the city charter when that city is created, otherwise the power remains in the hands of the state government.