Federal CaseIt amuses me when I find myself resorting to one of the many “sayings” or “expressions” I learned early in my childhood, and have always understood, but the derivation of which I did not bother to investigate or learn until much later. Just now, for example, remembering how my mother would say “I don’t want to hear about it… go tell Yehudi!,”, I realize I have no idea who Yehudi might have been. I just googled it, and read that Yehudi was the name of a famous violinist of my parents’ time…and is a common Jewish name, and is sometimes used as an endonym for “jew”. (I’ll let you google “endonym”.)

Some expressions were obvious, like when my father instructed “use your noodle!”, as he often did when he thought we weren’t thinking things through. He meant “think about it”, and “noodle” meant “brain”. And I understood the aphorism, which my parents used to rebuke us for lack of discipline or character, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

But frequently the references were like make-believe. If something was imagined in a far away and exotic place, most likely that would be “Timbuktu”. It failed to occur to me that Timbuktu was a real place that I could find on a map (FYI, it’s in the African nation of Mali). Nor did I have any idea who “Rube Goldberg” was, though he was usually mentioned when my parents complained of some poorly calculated solution or defective device. (I later learned he was a cartoonist who specialized in drawing fictional, complicated mechanical contraptions.)


Similarly, when my father thought someone was making too big a deal about some problem or dispute, and needed to “chill”, in today’s parlance,  he would often say, “you don’t need to make a Federal Case out of it!” And just as I rarely considered the literal meaning of my parents’ short-hand expressions, I never thought about what a “Federal case” was, or how it might be something more substantial than an ordinary “case”, i.e. not federal.

But that was before I was even out of grammar school, and long before I became a lawyer and learned that there actually IS such a thing as a “Federal Case”–and it DOES have significant characteristics that distinguish it from other “cases”–like “State cases.”


A Federal case, most literally, is a lawsuit that is filed in a Federal Court, which usually means one of the 94 “District Courts” that Congress has established throughout the United States, one or more in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and a few outside of the United States (in Guam, Puerto Rico, the Mariana Islands). District Courts are courts of “original jurisdiction”, as opposed to the Federal Courts of Appeal, which are courts of
“appellate jurisdiction”. In other words, District Courts are where Federal Cases are first brought for trial in Federal Court.


I’m not sure how much my dad knew about the law. He was a smart man, but he had no training in law and never was involved in a lawsuit, as far as I know. I imagine he figured that a “Federal Case” must involve “Federal Law”, which is kind of a big deal since Federal laws apply across the county, and not just in one State–and that’s true. In most situations, Federal laws must be enforced in Federal Court.

But it’s also true that State Courts handle some very “big” and important cases, with no limit on the amount of money damages that might be awarded. This is referred to as “unlimited jurisdiction”, meaning that the amount of money damages that might be awarded is “unlimited.”  However, State Courts DO have limits regarding their jurisdiction over persons and businesses and events outside of their territory, and involving the interpretation and enforcement of Federal Law, which may require that a particular case be brought or removed to Federal Court.


The question of whether a particular lawsuit can be filed in only State Court, or only in Federal Court, or either in State or Federal Court, is a bit too complicated to explain here. However, it is a question every lawyer must ask…and answer…him or herself, when devising initial litigation strategy. There are potential significant advantages and disadvantages depending on the particular facts and laws involved.


In our law firm’s practice, where our trial lawyers primarily represent small and medium businesses and individuals in commercial, property and professional disputes, most cases must be filed in State Court. That said, however, Federal Court jurisdiction is by no means uncommon even in these sorts of cases. Where it is available, the benefits can be significant. Many Federal Courts, including San Diego’s Federal Courts, typically have greater resources to manage and facilitate prompt resolution of disputes, prominently including their system for “early neutral evaluation” by a Magistrate Judge. The Federal Courthouses and courtrooms are also typically more formal and solemn, and the results of any given dispute can be more predictable in Federal Court. Another advantage of Federal Courts is that the time to trial is often faster than our litigation attorneys see in State Courts.


Whenever I interview a new client with a dispute likely to result in litigation, I always remember by father’s phrase when I ask myself: Do I want to make a Federal Case of this?!!!!”

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