Stephen J. Buhler, Attorney at Law

Family law: from state court to federal and back again

Utah and many states across the United States are in a state of limbo as challenges to same-sex marriage laws and constitutional changes work their way through the legal system. Outside observers and those with a personal stake in the case's outcome may be feeling an ever growing sense of confusion as to what all the rulings, stays and appeals really mean and when the case will finally be over and done with for good.

Although, there are many areas of law in the United States, the legal system is primarily divided into two separate and distinct areas: civil and criminal. Each area has its own set of rules, procedures and burden of proof that determine how cases are to be organized and heard by the court. The set of rules and laws a court uses to determine a case not only varies by state, but can vary by subject matter or type of law. In the U.S., the two primary levels of law are state and federal, each being heard in their respective courts.

State courts are the final deciders of issue involving state laws and constitutions are normally divided into three types of court the trial, appeals and Supreme Court. A dispute starts off in the state's district court where a ruling is made. A party may appeal a district's court decision to the states appeals court, which issues a ruling that may or may not be appealable to the state's Supreme Court. In most instances, the state's Supreme Court has the final say in any case it chooses to here, and all lower courts must side with its determination.

Disputes involving interpretations of federal law or the constitutionality of a law can be appealed to federal court, even if the state's Supreme Court has ruled on the issue. Once a case is heard in a federal court, it can be appealed all the way up to the United States Supreme Court or sent back to the state court for a ruling consistent with the federal courts determination. A case that crosses over to federal courts can be considered closed once the Supreme Court has made a ruling on the issue or denied a writ of certiorari to take up the issue, in which case the federal court of appeals ruling stands.


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