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Federal Court vs. State Court: What are the Differences for Litigating a Business Case?

Litigating a business case in federal court often has key differences from litigating a business case in state court. Here are some of the key differences:

Federal judges are often less flexible with scheduling

Federal judges often are actively involved in managing their trial dockets and schedules. One way of saying it is that in state court, “the lawyer runs the case.” In federal court, “the judge runs the case.”

With some federal judges, the lack of scheduling flexibility is even more pronounced. Indeed, some federal judges will set the parties on a six month track to complete discovery, file pretrial motions, and try the case. In many complex cases, this may seem unreasonable and onerous, but the objective of the federal judge often is to leverage the parties to consent to the U.S. Magistrate Judge presiding over and trying the case.

Legal writing is more critical in federal court

Practice in federal court puts more of an onus on good legal writing, as motions often are decided without a hearing before the court. On this note, every motion filed in federal court requires a memorandum of law in support of the motion, a memorandum in opposition, and, in some courts, a reply memorandum.

Indeed, the importance of good legal writing is sometimes more pronounced not only in court but also in chambers. In fact, when a lawyer makes the judge’s law clerk’s job tougher because the lawyer’s legal writing is poor, the extra work imposed upon the law clerk is usually quite memorable for the law clerk. Indeed, at least one federal judge in South Florida has mentioned that the judicial law clerks hold a monthly contest for worst written submission of the month. That is not a list a lawyer wants to be on, but it also demonstrates the emphasis on good legal writing in federal court.

Motions for Summary Judgment in federal court are game changers

The practice in federal court is drastically different than state court because of the frequency in which motions for summary judgment are granted. Indeed, federal judges know that when they grant motions for summary judgment they will be affirmed on appeal the supermajority of the time.

In contrast, in state court, most judges will not grant summary judgment unless it is absolutely clear that the issue is one of law or the facts are effectively stipulated. The concern of state courts is the regularity in which the state appellate courts reverse trial court judges for awarding summary judgment. This has made many state court judges gun shy about granting summary judgment.

Federal judges have law clerks

Most U.S. District Judges have three full-time law clerks and most U.S. Magistrate Judges have two full-time law clerks. In contrast, state court judges in Florida have no full-time law clerks and have only occasional access to a shared staff attorney for large projects.

This usually means that in federal court, the judge’s law clerks independently research the legal issues before the judge makes a decision. Similarly, the orders entered by a federal judge usually are drafted initially by the judge’s law clerk and include a more detailed analysis than orders typically contain in state court.

In particular, when the issues presented in a business case are complex, having the benefit of law clerks performing legal research and preparing a detailed order certainly can help litigants better understand a federal judge’s rationale in coming to a decision. If, however, the strength of a party’s case would benefit from a less detailed analysis, state court is probably preferable.

Voir dire is much more limited in federal court

If the case will be tried by a jury, one of the major differences between federal and state court is that voir dire in federal court is much more limited. In state court, judges usually will give the parties’ counsel a half-day to pick a jury and sometimes a full-day. In federal court, however, judges often will handle all background and hardship questions and only give each party’s counsel 15 minutes to question the jurors.

This time limitation in federal court often makes it difficult to elicit any deep background or biases from jurors. In contrast, in state court, attorneys for the parties often engage in broad questioning of jurors. The purpose of this questioning in state court is to garner information about the jurors’ ability to be fair, seek disclosure of personal experiences that may prove unfairly prejudicial, and elicit any beliefs that may lead to bias against one party.

Conclusion

In Florida, the disparity between litigating a business case in federal versus state court can be both vast and significant. Therefore, when a business case is filed or is removed to federal court, clients and lawyers should make sure to hire or affiliate with a business litigation attorney that has substantial experience in federal-court litigation.

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