America swims in uncharted waters. After months of impassioned debate on how the Constitution will work in theory, the country is now beginning to see how the Constitution does work in practice. Those afraid of the executive branch being a “fetus of monarchy” sleep soundly with Washington at the helm.1 Those who demand a declaration of rights are content knowing Madison’s chief task is to draft one. And those who feared a national judiciary can now see in detail what it will look like. Together, Article III of the Constitution and the freshly signed Judiciary Act form a strong and necessary judicial branch, one that respects the rights of the states, but also protects the rights of the people.
Article III lays out the barebones framework for the judicial branch. It establishes a single Supreme Court, grants life tenure to judges during “good behaviour”, forbids salary reductions while in office, and sets forth the court’s limited jurisdiction.2 Unlike the preceding articles, Article III charges Congress with creating the details of this branch. This is provided for in the Judiciary Act of 1789, which will be discussed in detail later.
First, it is necessary to provide further explication of Article III. What is the purpose of a national judicial system? There are many “anti-federalists” still who decry it as being wholly unnecessary, even dangerous. They believe state courts are sufficient enough. However, the need for a national court system was illustrated under America’s best how-not-to guide, the Articles of Confederation. Without a national court, how are disputes between states handled? Furthermore, what about cases in which the United States is a party? Or conflicts that occur on the high seas? This is one aspect of the national judiciary’s role established in Article III—to handle disputes in which a state court could not be impartial, or has no clear claim to the case.
Article VI, Clause II of the Constitution provides an even greater need for a national judiciary. It establishes the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land”.3 All state laws are thus inferior. In instances where a state law might conflict with a national law, it is the responsibility of the Supreme Court to determine if this is in fact the case. This jurisdiction is explicitly provided for in Section 25 of the Judiciary Act. Without a single court to interpret national law, varying interpretations of the Constitution would inevitably arise in the states. Not only is this impractical, it diminishes the cohesiveness of America as a whole.
Though the need for the judicial branch is clear, there remains the fear amongst some that Article III creates a judicial system that will trample state courts and become tyrannical. In fact, the judicial branch is the weakest of the three branches. It has, as Publius writes, neither the power of the sword nor the power of the purse.4 The Supreme Court cannot create laws, only interpret them. Despite this relative weakness, the court plays an absolutely vital role. As interpreters of the Constitution, Supreme Court justices have the responsibility of guarding against unconstitutional encroachments. They act as protectors of the people’s Constitution. This is the main thrust of Publius’ argument in Federalist 78.5
Though Article III answers some questions, it leaves many unanswered. Most notably: How many judges will serve on the Supreme Court? How will the national judiciary be structured? What exactly is the court’s jurisdiction? These questions are addressed in the aforementioned Judiciary Act recently signed into law.
Structurally, the Judiciary Act creates a three-tiered division of the federal court system. At the foundation are district courts, which deal with admiralty and maritime cases. In the middle are the circuit courts, which are the “workload courts”.6 And at the pinnacle is the Supreme Court which receives appeals and exercises final judgements.
The Supreme Court is to be composed of five Associate Justices and one Chief Justice. As previously mentioned, justices serve for life, are appointed by the president, and cannot have their salary diminished during tenure. The reasoning for life-tenure and a non-diminishing salary is to enhance the independence of the justices. If the President or Congress could reduce a judges salary, or worse, remove them from the bench, the ability of a justice to make objective judgements would naturally be impaired.
These justices, according to the Judiciary Act, will ride circuit, with pairs of justices being assigned to a specific region in the United States—Eastern, Middle, or Southern. There are two reasons for requiring the Supreme Court justices to ride circuit. The first is so that the judges might act as “teachers to the citizenry”.7 The judiciary branch is the only branch whose members require training, and are therefor best equipped to explain this new system of government to the people.8 Traveling circuit will allow judges to become the face of the Constitution. The other reason for having justices ride circuit is simply so they have something to do. As the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
Finally, the issue of the court’s jurisdiction, which has already been largely alluded to. Section 13 of the Judiciary Act grants exclusive jurisdiction to the Supreme Court in cases where a state is a party (except when the citizens of that state or another state are also a party), and also in cases involving ambassadors and the like. More controversial is the aforementioned Section 25, which grants the Supreme Court appellant jurisdiction on matters of constitutionality. Some charge this as impinging on state courts, but again, it is the solemn duty of the Supreme Court to protect against constitutional encroachments, wherever they may arise. In short, the Supreme Court is limited to cases of constitutionality, disputes between states, disputes involving foreign entities, and only rarely has exclusive jurisdiction.
The Constitution is still in its infancy. Many questions remain unanswered, and decades from now this will still be true. And therein lies the ultimate role of the judiciary, as established in Article III and fleshed out in this Judiciary Act: to interpret, explain, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.
- Class Notes. Early American Political Development. October 12th, 2017.
- US Constitution. Article III, Sections 1 and 2.
- US Constitution. Article VI, Clause 2.
- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay. The Federalist Papers (New York: Quarto Publishing Group, 2017), 415.
- Et al. 416.
- R. B. Bernstein. A Quick and Dirty Guide to the Constitutional History of the American Revolution. Chapter 6, Part B.
- Ralph Lerner, “The Supreme Court as Republican Schoolmaster,” The Supreme Court Review vol. 1967 (1967): 129.
- Et al. 165