Difference Between Federal and State Government
The primary difference between the federal government and the state governments is the scope of their legal powers. The federal government is expressly given the power to make and veto laws, oversee national defense and foreign policy, impeach officials, impose tariffs and enter into treaties. The federal government, through the Supreme Court, also has the power to interpret and revise laws and intercede when one state is impeding on the rights of another. Other examples of the duties of the federal government include: implementing and enforcing immigration laws, bankruptcy laws, Social Security laws, discrimination and civil rights laws, patent and copyright laws and laws pertaining to tax fraud and money counterfeiting.[i]
The states’ legal jurisdiction is going to cover all other matters, as defined by the 10th Amendment. Further, each state has the ability to govern these matters differently. Because of the broad definition of the states’ rights and the federal government’s rights, it is frequently the subject to interpretation and review. However, some of the subjects that are covered under state law include: criminal cases, divorce and family issues, welfare and Medicaid, estate laws, real estate and property laws, business contracts, personal injury, medical malpractice and workers’ compensation.[ii]
In order to adequately enforce the laws within their purview, both the federal government as well as all state governments have a court system. Within the federal system there are 94 district courts, 12 appeals courts and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the only court that is established directly by the Constitution. It is the highest law in the country and decisions made by the Supreme Court are often of national interest. All other courts in the country must abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court. This court even has the power to determine whether federal, state and local governments are acting within the law,[iii] however, only a small number of cases are selected for review. Justices are appointed by the President for a lifetime term.
The court systems within each state are established by state law or the state Constitution. Justices for these courts can be selected in a variety of different ways, as determined by the state they are located. Some of these methods include: election, appointment for a term, appointment for life or a combination of these such as appointment followed by election.[iv] State court systems are much larger in number than the federal court systems but typically follow a similar structure. The state courts are the final say in interpretation of the laws developed by the state Constitution.
Generally speaking, the federal law and the Supreme Court rulings carry heavier weight than state laws. If there is a conflict between a state law and a federal law, the federal law prevails. The exception to this is in regard to citizen rights. If the state law affords more rights to citizens than the federal law, then the state law prevails within that state. Additionally, federal law and government applies to all citizens within a country, whereas, state laws only apply to individuals residing within that state. A good example of this is the legality of medical marijuana. It is allowed within some states, and prohibited in others. This means that residents can used it legally when in states where it is legal but not in states where it is illegal. However, in such a case, the federal law would trump any state law pertaining to the issue, which makes it illegal. In this case though, the President deferred the power to the states to determine its legal status, while reserving the federal authority to intercede at any time it deems necessary.[v]
Federal law is created through a very specific process. First, a legislator from either the House of Representatives or the Senate must draft and sponsor the bill which will then be heard by whichever branch that representative belongs to (House or Senate). At this time, it is eligible for review and can be changed or amended. If it receives a majority vote, it goes to the other branch of the Legislature where it can be changed or amended again and voted on. If it passes through each branch with a majority vote and with all changes approved by both branches, it will be sent to the President. He or she has the option of either signing it and creating law or vetoing it, in which case it would not become law. There is also the option of not signing it and not vetoing it. If this happens, the bill becomes law anyway after a specified amount of time.[vi]
State laws typically go through a similar process, but can vary slightly depending upon which state is creating the law. As there are 50 individual states with their own process plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, there is much room for variations. Most of the state laws are based upon the common law of England, with Louisiana being the exception, as they base their state law upon French and Spanish law. There have been several attempts to create some laws that are in the states’ purview that would be uniform across a national level. Two such attempts that were successful are the Uniform Commercial Code and the Model Penal Code. Aside from these, other attempts typically fail. This is typically because the acts have to actually be enacted by the state legislature in order to become law and many aren’t or they are only enacted in some of the states, which prevents it from becoming a useful tool as it still wouldn’t ensure national legal uniformity.[vii]
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[i] The differences between federal, state, and local laws. (n.d.). In LawHelp.org. Retrieved October 11, 2016 from http://www.lawhelp.org/resource/the-differences-between-federal-state-and-loc
[ii] The differences between federal, state, and local laws. (n.d.). In LawHelp.org. Retrieved October 11, 2016 from http://www.lawhelp.org/resource/the-differences-between-federal-state-and-loc
[iii] Federal vs. state law. (n.d.). In Diffen online. Retrieved October 11, 2016 from
[iv] Federal vs. state law. (n.d.). In Diffen online. Retrieved October 11, 2016 from
[v] Federal vs. state law. (n.d.). In Diffen online. Retrieved October 11, 2016 from
[vi] How laws are made and how to research them. (n.d.). In USA.gov online. Retrieved October 11, 2016 from https://www.usa.gov/how-laws-are-made
[vii] State law (United States). (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_law_(United_States)