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Article III of the US Constitution: The United States Supreme Court

The United States federal government is divided into three branches, separating government’s principal powers among different actors. The Constitution defines the powers of each branch.  Article I defines the legislative, or congress. Article II defines the executive, or presidency. Article III creates broad outlines for the judicial, primarily the Supreme Court. Article IV defines the relations between the states and the federal government.

Qualifications of Judges and Organization of Judiciary Not Addressed

Articles I and II go into great detail regarding the qualifications for President and Member of Congress. These include issues of citizenship, age and residency. Article III does not set any qualifications for judges of the United States courts. As a legal matter judges are not even required to be lawyers. While Articles I and II also set forth the method of election of the president and members of Congress, Article III does not mention the selection of judges.  The president appoints judges with the advice and consent of the Senate, and this process is defined in Article II, section 2 under presidential powers. The organization of the courts is also not addressed in the Constitution. The Constitution does not provide for the number of Supreme Court justices, it does not establish trial or appellate courts.  These matters are left to the Congress.  Article III is interesting for what it does not say, as well as for what it says.

The Judicial Power of the United States, Article III, Section 1

Article III, Section 1 confers the judicial power upon the federal courts, provides for the lifetime appointment of federal judges and prohibits Congress from decreasing the pay of judges. It reads as follows:

“Section 1. 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. 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”

While the Founding Fathers created the Supreme Court, they left up to Congress the decision on the size and composition of the Supreme Court, the time and place for sitting, and its internal organization. In fact, the office of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is not specifically created in Article III regarding the judiciary. That office is mentioned only once in the Constitution, in Article I, Section 3 indicating the Chief Justice would preside at the impeachment of the President.  The Constitution assumes there will be a Chief Justice by implication, but does not directly create the office.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution

Article III, Section 2 defines the types of cases that federal courts may decide. The federal courts can only hear those cases involving subjects defined in the Constitution and refined by Congress. This concept is known as subject matter jurisdiction. This is in contrast to state courts that can hear nearly every type of controversy.  State courts are courts of general jurisdiction. Federal courts are considered to be courts of “limited jurisdiction”.[1]  Federal courts can make decisions in the following types of cases:

  • cases arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States(Federal question jurisdiction)
  • cases involving ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls (Ambassador jurisdiction)
  • cases involving navigable waters (Admiralty jurisdiction)
  • cases in which the United States is a party (United States as a party jurisdiction)
  • cases between two or more states (State jurisdiction)
  • cases between citizens of different states (Diversity jurisdiction)
  • cases between citizens of the same state claiming land under the grants of different states (Land grants jurisdiction)
  • cases between a state or citizens of a state and a foreign state or citizens of a foreign state (Alienage jurisdiction)

The above cases are the kinds in of matters that can be heard in federal courts beginning with the trial or District Court. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in certain cases. This means that the Supreme Court is the first court to hear the case.  The only matters involving original Supreme Court jurisdiction are those involving representatives of foreign governments and those in which a State is a party. In all other federal court cases, the Supreme Court hears appeals from the decisions of lower courts; this is appellate jurisdiction. Finally Section 2 provides that all criminal trials shall be by jury trial.

Treason Defined, Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution

The only constitutionally clearly defined crime is treason: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

The Judiciary Act of 1789

The Congress acted in 1789 to fill in the blanks regarding the federal judicial branch left by the Constitution. The Judiciary Act of 1789  provided for six justices, one Chief Justice and five associates. It also created the circuit courts, 13 judicial districts, and refined the appellate and original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The number of justices has changed over time, and currently there are a total of nine. Chief Justice John Marshall and the Supreme Court took a strong step to establish the court as a co-equal branch of government when in 1803 it declared a portion of the Judiciary Act of 1789 to be unconstitutional. This established the principal of judicial review in the decision of Marbury v. Madison.   This concept has been the source of  controversy.  The Supreme Court’s assumed power as final arbiter of the Constitution has turned the third branch of government, that has minimal constitutional definition into a powerful institution.

Nullification Theories Deny Supreme Court as Final Arbiter of Constitution

The Court’s role a final arbiter of the Constitution is not unchallenged.  There are legal arguments that as the creators of the federal government, the States retain sovereign power to define federal authority.  These arguments assert that the states retain the authority to ignore or “nullify” federal law not enacted pursuant to the Constitution.  The Nullification Doctrine has gained great currency in the modern day.  With that doctrine, the States, not the Supreme Court, have the final say on the meaning of the Constitution. As the People created the United States as its agent to secure the “blessing of liberty“, it is the People to whom all branches of the federal government must answer.


[1] This concept is similar to the “enumerated powers” doctrine regarding Congress.  The Constitution provided specific subjects that Congress could regulate by law.  The Constitution defined specific types of cases that federal courts can decide.

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