The U.S. Constitution – Lesson #14: Federal Court Structure & Jurisdiction


Today’s lesson focuses in on Sections 1 and 2 of Article III of the Constitution.  This section focuses on the judicial branch, which includes the final court of appeals in the U.S., the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS if you like abbreviations).  So lets jump right in.

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.

Judicial power is the power to interpret the laws.  The power of interpretations falls on courts because they are unelected by the people and protected from both the Congress and the President so they can make the best decisions without any vindictive actions by either branch or the people because they ruled against them or the will of the majority.  This is the principle of judicial review, which is the power to declare the acts of the government as unconstitutional.  This means that the actions are either forbidden by the Constitution or they are not granted to the government in the Constitution.

The principle of judicial review is not specifically mentioned by name in the Constitution but it is implied in the other clauses of the document.  It was implied but not specifically debated at the Constitutional Convention, but it was anticipated before the ratification of the Constitution (Monk 90).  The case of Marbury v. Madison is where the idea of judicial review becomes true law.  But that is a story for another day.  (There is another   idea for my blog articles… reviewing cases that came before the Supreme Court.)

The first clause creates the Supreme Court of the United States.  It also provides the creation of other lower courts by the Congress of the United States (COTUS, another weird abbreviation).  This is a reiteration of the power granted to Congress in Article I, Section 8, Clause 9.  Over the years the Congress has done just that.  As it stands right now, there are 94 district courts throughout the United States, with at least one per state.  There are also 13 district courts of appeal that are made up of several state districts, which all lead eventually to the Supreme Court.  Their is also a number of other specific courts that handle a specific jurisdiction, like tax court, regulatory agency courts.  Why we need this many courts is beyond me, but moving on?

The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

Within the Constitution their are no listed qualifications listed to be a federal judge within the United States, but it does list the term of office.  Judges serve for life and their compensation (salary) cannot be diminished while they sit in that office.  This is meant to protect the judges and make them as independent as possible from any other branch or the people.  The lifetime appointment protects them from the electorate, who may elect new judges that will do what they want.  The judges can make the decisions that need to be made free from the politics and partisanship of the day.  Their pay is set so that the Congress cannot punish them for declaring their acts unconstitutional.

Many of the people of the United States and the Anti-Federalists feared unelected judges because they could easily substitute their view of the law in place of that of the majority of Americans.  This is what has people all up in arms in California.  A federal judge struck down the Constitutional amendment declaring marriage as between one man and one woman, Proposition 8, that had been voted on and passed twice by the people.  The judge had thwarting the will of the majority.  This specific issue will be discussed more when the class gets to Article IV of the Constitution.  So save your comments on that topic for that time.  Hopefully in about two or three weeks.

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

This paragraph is all of Section 2 of Article III.  It outlines the areas where federal courts have jurisdiction (power) in the United States.  The strike outs were parts of the Constitution that were altered by the eleventh amendment, in response to the 1793 cases of Chisholm v. Georgia.  The class will not specifically address those parts today but will deal with them later.  Let us take some time to identify the major areas in which the federal courts have judicial jurisdiction.

“Cases… arising under this Constitution…”  This is in reference to the interpretation of the Constitution and violations of it.  Another lesson in the future will deal with the different methods by which the federal courts interpret the federal constitution.  One point to make though is that the Supreme Court and other federal courts do not pass judgment on hypothetical cases or give advisory opinions, telling government officials whether an act is constitutional or not.  In fact this idea was rejected by the Constitutional convention (Monk 98)

“The laws of the United States and Treaties made… under their authority.”  It is obvious that it is the job of the federal courts to rule on the laws of the United States and its treaties.  Under the Articles of Confederation the states were responsible for enforcing federal laws.  In practice this meant that federal laws were largely unenforced.

“Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers, and Consuls”  These people are citizens of foreign countries, so it makes common sense (which is not that common, nowadays) that the federal courts have first crack at them.  The accusations against said people affects our relationships with foreign nations, which is the exclusive domain of the federal government and not the states.

“Cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction”  This specifically refers to cases of crimes on the high seas which Congress can legislate in Article I, Section 8, Clause 10.  Since the bodies of water that surround the United States belong to no state, it stands to reason the federal courts have jurisdiction in these locations.  Generally this has also come to refers to cases about shared bodies of water in the United States.  For example, rivers that act as the boundary between two states (Mississippi River ), or lakes that touch more than one state (Lake Michigan or Lake Mead).

“To Controversies between to which the United State shall be a party; to Controversies between two or more states.. between citizens of different states.”  This provision was the prevent any possibility of prejudice of the state courts against the another state, citizens of another state or the federal government.

Their are two more sections in this article of the Constitution but I will leave them for another day.  Are their any questions, comments or concerns from the class?  Class dismissed.

Advertisements

Questions? Comments? Concerns?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s