Identifying Federal, State, and Local Government Bodies

When seeking government information, it is important for you to be able to distinguish between federal, state, and local government bodies. The situation is more complex than it might otherwise seem because of the U.S. system of federalism. The concept of federalism is complicated, but it essentially means that the U.S. federal government shares power with state and local governments that exercise political authority over particular geographical regions. Thus, there may be three (and sometimes even more) government bodies that exercise authority or regulate a particular activity. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to determine whether you are dealing with a state, federal, or local government body:

  • Check the name of the government body: Often, the name of a government body will indicate what level of government it belongs to. Many federal agencies and executive departments have names that contain "U.S." or "Federal," such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Social Security Administration, and the United States of America Department of Commerce. At the state level, many state departments, agencies, boards, and commissions have names that contain the word "State" or the name of the particular state, or both, such as the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Virginia State Corporation Commission, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Illinois State Board of Education. Finally, at the local level, government bodies will often have names that include the words "county," "city," "township," "town," "district," and the like. For example, you will find the Seattle City Council, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the McHenry County Board, the Whitpain Township Planning Commission, the Palmyra, NY Town Zoning Board, and the District School Board of Collier County. In most cases, paying attention to the name of the government body you are dealing with will tip you off to whether it is a federal, state, or local government entity.

  • Look closely at what the government body does: If you have access to a government body's website or some other source of information about it, then you can look at what it does, who is affected by it, and over what geographical region it has authority. There is no precise litmus test here, but you can generally figure out whether the government body has a nationwide, statewide, or local impact, and this will ordinarily correspond to its place in federal, state, or local government, respectively. This will be most obvious with local government bodies that deal with a particular issue (like zoning, parking, or recycling) in a particular town or township.

  • Consider location: Sometimes, knowing where a government body is headquartered or located is a good gauge of whether it is a federal, state, or local body. For instance, if a government body is housed in your town or city hall, or in a building with other town, city, or county offices, then it is a good bet that it is a local government body. State government bodies will often be located in your state capital, but this is not always a great indicator because federal offices, agencies, and personnel may be located in major cities like the state capital. (Strictly speaking, federal offices could also be located in small towns, so keep in mind the other factors discussed above.) The main headquarters of most federal agencies and other federal government bodies are in Washington, D.C.

  • Pick up the phone: The surest way of determining whether a particular government body is part of the federal, state, or local government is to call and ask. While you're at it, you might ask more specifically whether the government body is subject to federal, state, or local open records and open meetings laws. Ask whomever is helping you to be specific.

Special Considerations for Courts

There are federal, state, and local court systems in every state. For example, if you are in New York City, there is a federal district court (the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York), a state trial court of general jurisdiction (the New York Supreme Court, New York County), and city courts (like the New York City Civil Court and the New York City Criminal Court). These different court systems may have different rules regarding access to court proceedings and court records. See the Access to Courts and Court Records section for details.

The federal court system is split into three levels: the U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Courts of Appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The name of the court will usually tip you off to whether you are dealing with a federal court. The federal trial courts will have names including "The United States District Court for . . .," such as the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, or the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The federal appellate courts will have names including "The United States Courts of Appeals for the ___ Circuit," such as the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and the States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Of course, you shouldn't have any trouble identifying the Supreme Court of the United States as a federal court. In addition, federal courts will be located in a courthouse bearing the name "United States Courthouse," such as the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston, the Phillip Burton United States Courthouse in San Francisco, and the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York. For additional information about the federal courts, see the U.S. Courts website.

If you are not dealing with a federal court, then in all likelihood you are dealing with a state court. There is great diversity in the names of the state courts, both at the trial and the appellate level. Luckily, an excellent Wikipedia article lists the names of and provides links to the trial, intermediate appellate, and highest courts of all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories and protectorates. If you want to confirm the accuracy of this information, you could check it against State Court Sites from an organization called State and Local Government on the Net. (Incidentally, this website can help you find the websites of a huge number of federal, state, and local government bodies, in addition to courts.)

As noted, local courts exist in many counties, cities, and towns. You'll probably know them by their name ("county court," "city court," and the like) and by their location in the county courthouse or similar local building. You can always call the clerk of the court or contact a local lawyer for clarification.