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ArtIII.S1.6.1 Overview of the Relationship Between Federal and State Courts

Article III, Section 1:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

The Constitution’s Supremacy Clause provides that the Constitution, federal statutes, and treaties “shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” 1 The Supremacy Clause thus presumes that state courts will interpret—and be bound by—federal law.2

Under current practice, both state and federal courts play an important role in interpreting and applying the Constitution and federal law.3 However, at the time of the Founding it was not initially clear how that power would be divided between federal and state courts.4

In the years since the Founding, Supreme Court decisions have established that federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court, are the final authority on interpreting federal law, and federal courts possess the constitutional authority to review state court decisions that allegedly conflict with the Constitution or federal law.5 Various statutory and court-made rules govern when such review is available, however. In some circumstances, a complainant bringing a claim under federal law is required to exhaust available state legislative or administrative remedies before seeking relief in federal court; by contrast, exhaustion of state judicial remedies—for example, by first bringing related state law claims in state court—is not generally required.6 There are also circumstances in which the federal courts have the power to assert jurisdiction over a case but decline to do so out of respect for the sovereign authority of state courts.7

As for state courts, they are generally authorized to hear claims involving federal law, except in areas where the federal courts possess exclusive jurisdiction.8 Moreover, subject to limited exceptions, state courts are usually required to hear cases arising under federal law over which they have jurisdiction.9 State courts generally lack the authority to enjoin proceedings in federal court or prevent the enforcement of federal court judgments.10

U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. back
See, e.g., Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. 304, 342 (1816). back
See ArtIII.S1.6.3 Doctrine on Federal and State Courts. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.2 Historical Background on the Relationship Between Federal and State Courts. back
See id.; see also ArtIII.S1.6.4 State Court Jurisdiction to Enforce Federal Law; ArtIII.S1.6.9 Habeas Review. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.8 The Exhaustion Doctrine and State Law Remedies; but see ArtIII.S1.6.9 Habeas Review (exhaustion of state judicial remedies is required before filing a federal habeas corpus petition). back
See ArtIII.S1.6.7 Federal Non-Interference with State Jurisdiction. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.4 State Court Jurisdiction to Enforce Federal Law. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.4 State Court Jurisdiction to Enforce Federal Law. back
See ArtIII.S1.6.4 State Court Jurisdiction to Enforce Federal Law. back