State courts have their origins in colonial era courts. After the American Revolution, state courts functioned (with some differences) much like they did in colonial times. The big difference after 1789 was that state courts coexisted with federal courts. Federalismwas the system devised by the nation’s founders in which power is shared between states and the federal government. This sharing requires a division of labor between the states and the federal government. It is Article III of the US Constitution that spells out the respective spheres of authority (jurisdiction) between state and federal courts.
Take a close look at Article III of the Constitution. (You can find a printable copy of the Constitution at http://www.findlaw.com.) Article III makes clear that federal courts are courts of limited power or jurisdiction. Notice that the only kinds of cases federal courts are authorized to deal with have strong federal connections. For example, federal courts have jurisdiction when a federal law is being used by the plaintiff or prosecutor (a “federal question” case) or the case arises “in admiralty” (meaning that the problem arose not on land but on sea, beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any state, or in navigable waters within the United States). Implied in this list is the clear notion that states would continue to have their own laws, interpreted by their own courts, and that federal courts were needed only where the issues raised by the parties had a clear federal connection. The exception to this is diversity jurisdiction, discussed later.
The Constitution was constructed with the idea that state courts would continue to deal with basic kinds of claims such as tort, contract, or property claims. Since states sanction marriages and divorce, state courts would deal with “domestic” (family) issues. Since states deal with birth and death records, it stands to reason that paternity suits, probate disputes, and the like usually wind up in state courts. You wouldn’t go to the federal building or courthouse to get a marriage license, ask for a divorce, or probate a will: these matters have traditionally been dealt with by the states (and the thirteen original colonies before them). Matters that historically get raised and settled in state court under state law include not only domestic and probate matters but also law relating to corporations, partnerships, agency, contracts, property, torts, and commercial dealings generally. You cannot get married or divorced in federal court, because federal courts have no jurisdiction over matters that are historically (and are still) exclusively within the domain of state law.
In terms of subject matter jurisdiction, then, state courts will typically deal with the kinds of disputes just cited. Thus if you are Michigan resident and have an auto accident in Toledo with an Ohio resident and you each blame each other for the accident, the state courts would ordinarily resolve the matter if the dispute cannot otherwise be settled. Why state courts? Because when you blame one another and allege that it’s the other person’s fault, you have the beginnings of a tort case, with negligence as a primary element of the claim, and state courts have routinely dealt with this kind of claim, from British colonial times through Independence and to the present. (See also Introduction to Tort Law of this text.) People have had a need to resolve this kind of dispute long before our federal courts were created, and you can tell from Article III that the founders did not specify that tort or negligence claims should be handled by the federal courts. Again, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, limited to the kinds of cases specified in Article III. If the case before the federal court does not fall within one of those categories, the federal court cannot constitutionally hear the case because it does not have subject matter jurisdiction.
Always remember: a court must have subject matter jurisdiction to hear and decide a case. Without it, a court cannot address the merits of the controversy or even take the next jurisdictional step of figuring out which of the defendants can be sued in that court. The question of which defendants are appropriately before the court is a question of personal jurisdiction.
Because there are two court systems, it is important for a plaintiff to file in the right court to begin with. The right court is the one that has subject matter jurisdiction over the case—that is, the power to hear and decide the kind of case that is filed. Not only is it a waste of time to file in the wrong court system and be dismissed, but if the dismissal comes after the filing period imposed by the applicable statute of limitations, it will be too late to refile in the correct court system. Such cases will be routinely dismissed, regardless of how deserving the plaintiff might be in his quest for justice. (The plaintiff’s only remedy at that point would be to sue his lawyer for negligence for failing to mind the clock and get to the right court in time!)