Understanding California Courts: Plaintiffs’ Lawyer on Civil vs. Criminal Courts, State vs. Federal Courts

Our San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Rosa plaintiffs’ law firm believes in keeping our clients informed and educated, whether it is a personal injury matter, a False Claims Act case, a small business dispute, or any other claim within our firm’s purview.  We make this a key commitment in our work because it helps make the process of claim resolution a bit easier and makes the system a bit less intimidating.  Today’s focus, explaining two of the key divisions within the court system, is intended to help you to understand some of the different courts in California where your potential claim might be filed and heard (note: often, our cases are settled prior to actual trial).

Civil versus Criminal: The Two Faces of Justice

The first distinction is one we refer to often in these posts, the separation between the civil and criminal courts.  Criminal law is about punishment and guilty verdicts result in fines and/or incarceration (or, in some places, the death penalty).  In contrast, the object of civil cases is the redress of a wrong which, if the plaintiff prevails, is scalestypically accomplished through monetary compensation and/or restitution.  Criminal cases are brought by the government, while civil cases are between two private parties.

The standard of proof is also different.  Criminal courts require “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” for a guilty verdict while the civil courts require only that something “is more likely to be true than not true” for a verdict (See California Civil Jury Instructions 200).   The latter is a much more lenient standard and it is the reason a civil court will sometimes find a defendant liable even if the criminal court reached a not guilty verdict (ex. the O.J. Simpson murder trial).  As a civil law firm, our office can help a wronged party bring a case regardless of whether a related criminal case was successful or even if one was not filed at all.  However, not all criminal conduct gives rise to a civil claim and not all civil claims justify criminal charges.

State vs. Federal: The Constitution’s Dual Framework

A second key distinction is between the federal and state courts (we practice in both).  As discussed in a webpage sponsored by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the United States Constitution creates the dual federal and state systems.  For our purposes, the key difference is in jurisdiction, meaning they hear different types of cases.  Federal courts have a more limited jurisdiction.  They only hear cases: 1) Involving a violation of federal law or the U.S. Constitution (Federal Question Jurisdiction, includes challenges to the constitutionality of federal laws); 2) Disputes between citizens (can be people, companies, or both) of more than one state involving more than $75,000 (Diversity Jurisdiction); 3) Where the U.S. is a party or that involve a dispute between two or more states; and 4) Select areas of law (ex. Admiralty, Bankruptcy, and Copyright/Patent).  State courts have much broader jurisdiction and the majority of tort cases, including personal injury matters, fall under state court purview.  There are also differences in structure and in the selection of judges.

In many cases, both the state and federal courts have jurisdiction.  Our firm handles cases in both forums.  Choosing the best forum when both are available is an important part of our legal strategy and involves issues including the applicable court rules, the presiding judges and their willingness to entertain certain arguments, and the nature of the potential jury pool.

The Brod Law Firm: A Firm for the People

At the Brod Law Firm, we are not only experts in the law, we are also experts in the legal system.  The topics discussed above are just two of the many divisions within the legal arena.  We see our clients as partners in the legal practice, a commitment that requires keeping clients educated and informed about the system in general and their case in particular.  We handle a range of disputes for the citizens of and visitors to California, including working as a San Francisco personal injury law firm, representing tenants in landlord disputes, serving as counsel in California legal malpractice suits, and helping small businesses with both litigation and drafting needs.   If we can be of service to you, please do not hesitate to call.


See Related Blog Posts:

Falling Trees and California Premises Liability Law

Hoverboard Fires and California Product Liability Law

(Photo by Clyde Robinson of work by Jason Luper)

Contact Information