CRS Annotated Constitution

Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Limitations to This Power.—The principal function of court rules is that of regulating the practice of courts as regards forms, the operation and effect of process, and the mode and time of proceedings. However, rules are sometimes employed to state in convenient form principles of substantive law previously established by statutes or decisions. But no such rule “can enlarge or restrict jurisdiction. Nor can a rule abrogate or modify the substantive law.” This rule is applicable equally to courts of law, equity, and admiralty, to rules prescribed by the Supreme Court for the guidance of lower courts, and to rules “which lower courts make for their own guidance under authority conferred.”281 As incident to the judicial power, courts of the United States possess inherent authority to supervise the conduct of their officers, parties, witnesses, counsel, and jurors by self– preserving rules for the protection of the rights of litigants and the orderly administration of justice.282

The courts of the United States possess inherent equitable powers over their process to prevent abuse, oppression, and injustice, and to protect their jurisdiction and officers in the protection[p.646]of property in the custody of law.283 Such powers are said to be essential to and inherent in the organization of courts of justice.284 The courts of the United States also possess inherent power to amend their records, correct the errors of the clerk or other court officers, and to rectify defects or omissions in their records even after the lapse of a term, subject, however, to the qualification that the power to amend records conveys no power to create a record or re–create one of which no evidence exists.285

Appointment of Referees, Masters, and Special Aids

The administration of insolvent enterprises, investigations into the reasonableness of public utility rates, and the performance of other judicial functions often require the special services of masters in chancery, referees, auditors, and other special aids. The practice of referring pending actions to a referee was held in Heckers v. Fowler286 to be coequal with the organization of the federal courts. In the leading case of Ex parte Peterson,287 a United States district court appointed an auditor with power to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of testimony. The court authorized him to conduct a preliminary investigation of facts and file a report thereon for the purpose of simplifying the issues for the jury. This action was neither authorized nor prohibited by statute. In sustaining the action of the district judge, Justice Brandeis, speaking for the Court, declared: “Courts have (at least in the absence of legislation to the contrary) inherent power to provide themselves with appropriate instruments required for the performance of their duties. . . . This power includes authority to appoint persons unconnected with the court to aid judges in the performance of specific judicial duties, as they may arise in the progress of a cause.”288 The power to appoint auditors by federal courts sitting in equity has been exercised from their very beginning, and here it was held that this power is the same whether the court sits in law or equity.

Power to Admit and Disbar Attorneys

Subject to general statutory qualifications for attorneys, the power of the federal courts to admit and disbar attorneys rests on the common law from which it was originally derived. According to Chief Justice Taney, it was well settled by the common law that[p.647]“it rests exclusively with the Court to determine who is qualified to become one of its officers, as an attorney and counsellor, and for what cause he ought to be removed.” Such power, he made clear, however, “is not an arbitrary and despotic one, to be exercised at the pleasure of the Court, or from passion, prejudice, or personal hostility; but it is the duty of the Court to exercise and regulate it by a sound and just judicial discretion, whereby the rights and independence of the bar may be as scrupulously guarded and maintained by the Court, as the right and dignity of the Court itself.”289 The Test–Oath Act of July 2, 1862, which purported to exclude former Confederates from the practice of law in the federal courts, was invalidated in Ex parte Garland.290 In the course of his opinion for the Court, Justice Field discussed generally the power to admit and disbar attorneys. The exercise of such a power, he declared, is judicial power. The attorney is an officer of the court, and though Congress may prescribe qualifications for the practice of law in the federal courts, it may not do so in such a way as to inflict punishment contrary to the Constitution or to deprive a pardon of the President of its legal effect.291


Section 2. Judicial Power and Jurisdiction

Section 2. 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[p.648]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 Land under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.


Late in the Convention, a delegate proposed to extend the judicial power to cases arising under the Constitution of the United States as well as under its laws and treaties. Madison’s notes continue: “Mr. Madison doubted whether it was not going too far to extend the jurisdiction of the Court generally to cases arising under the Constitution, and whether it ought not to be limited to cases of a Judiciary Nature. The right of expounding the Constitution in cases not of this nature ought not to be given to that Department.

“The motion of Docr. Johnson was agreed to nem : con : it being generally supposed that the jurisdiction given was constructively limited to cases of a Judiciary nature—”.292

That the Framers did not intend for federal judges to roam at large in construing the Constitution and laws of the United States but rather preferred and provided for resolution of disputes arising in a “judicial” manner is revealed not only in the language of Sec. 2 and the passage quoted above but as well in the refusal to associate the judges in the extra–judicial functions which some members of the Convention—Madison and Wilson notably—conceived for them. Thus, four times proposals for associating the judges in a council of revision to pass on laws generally were voted down,293 and similar fates befell suggestions that the Chief Justice be a member of a privy council to assist the President294 and that the President or either House of Congress be able to request advisory opinions of the Supreme Court.295


This intent of the Framers was early effectuated when the Justices declined a request of President Washington to tender him advice respecting legal issues growing out of United States neutrality between England and France in 1793.296 Moreover, the refusal of the Justices to participate in the congressional plan for awarding veterans’ pensions297 bespoke a similar adherence to the restricted role of courts. These restrictions have been encapsuled in a series of principles or doctrines, the application of which determines whether an issue is meet for judicial resolution and whether the parties raising it are entitled to have it judicially resolved. Constitutional restrictions are intertwined with prudential considerations in the expression of these principles and doctrines, and it is seldom easy to separate out the two strands.298

The Two Classes of Cases and Controversies

By the terms of the foregoing section, the judicial power extends to nine classes of cases and controversies, which fall into two general groups. In the words of Chief Justice Marshall in Cohens v. Virginia:299 “In the first, jurisdiction depends on the character of the cause, whoever may be the parties. This class comprehends ‘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.’ This cause extends the jurisdiction of the Court to all the cases described, without making in its terms any exception whatever, and without any regard to the condition of the party. If there be any exception, it is to be implied, against the express words of the article. In the second class, the jurisdiction depends entirely on the character of the parties. In this are comprehended controversies between two or more States, between a State and citizens of another State,’ and ‘between a State and foreign States, citizens or subjects.’ If these be the parties, it is entirely unimportant, what may be the subject of controversy. Be it what it may, these parties have a constitutional right to come into the courts of the Union.”300

Judicial power is “the power of a court to decide and pronounce a judgment and carry it into effect between persons and parties[p.650]who bring a case before it for decision.”301 The meaning attached to the terms “cases” and “controversies”302 determines therefore the extent of the judicial power as well as the capacity of the federal courts to receive jurisdiction. According to Chief Justice Marshall, judicial power is capable of acting only when the subject is submitted in a case and a case arises only when a party asserts his rights “in a form prescribed by law.”303 “By cases and controversies are intended the claims of litigants brought before the courts for determination by such regular proceedings as are established by law or custom for the protection or enforcement of rights, or the prevention, redress, or punishment of wrongs. Whenever the claim of a party under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States takes such a form that the judicial power is capable of acting upon it, then it has become a case. The term implies the existence of present or possible adverse parties whose contentions are submitted to the Court for adjudication.”304

Chief Justice Hughes once essayed a definition, which, however, presents a substantial problem of labels. “A ‘controversy’ in this sense must be one that is appropriate for judicial determination. A justiciable controversy is thus distinguished from a difference or dispute of a hypothetical character; from one that is academic or moot. The controversy must be definite and concrete, touching the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests. It must be a real and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree of a conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts.”305 Of the “case” and “controversy” requirement, Chief Justice Warren admitted that “those two words have an iceberg quality, containing beneath their surface simplicity submerged complexities which go to the very heart of our constitutional form of government. Embodied in the words ‘cases’ and ‘controversies’ are two complementary but somewhat different limitations. In part those words limit the business of federal courts to questions presented in an adversary context and in a form historically viewed as capable of resolution through the judicial process. And in part those words define the role assigned to the judiciary[p.651]in a tripartite allocation of power to assure that the federal courts will not intrude into areas committed to the other branches of government. Justiciability is the term of art employed to give expression to this dual limitation placed upon federal courts by the case and controversy doctrine.”306 Justice Frankfurter perhaps best captured the flavor of the “case” and “controversy” requirement by noting that it takes the “expert feel of lawyers” often to note it.307


281 Washington–Southern Nav. Co. v. Baltimore & P.S.B.C. Co., 263 U.S. 629, 635, 636 (1924). It is not for the Supreme Court to prescribe how the discretion vested in a Court of Appeals should be exercised. As long as the latter court keeps within the bounds of judicial discretion, its action is not reviewable. In re Burwell, 350 U.S. 521 (1956).
282 McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 266 (1915); Griffin v. Thompson, 2 How. (43 U.S.) 244, 257 (1844). See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985) (court of appeal rule conditioning appeal on having filed with the district court timely objections to a master’s report). In Rea v. United States, 350 U.S. 214, 218 (1956), the Court, citing McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332 (1943), asserted that this supervisory power extends to policing the requirements of the Court’s rules with respect to the law enforcement practices of federal agents. But compare United States v. Payner, 447 U.S. 727 (1980).
283 Gumbel v. Pitkin, 124 U.S. 131 (1888); Covell v. Heyman, 111 U.S. 176 (1884); Buck v. Colbath, 3 Wall. (70 U.S.) 334 (1866).
284 Eberly v. Moore, 24 How. (65 U.S.) 147 (1861); Arkadelphia Co. v. St. Louis S.W. Ry. Co., 249 U.S. 134 (1919).
285 Gagnon v. United States, 193 U.S. 451, 458 (1904).
286 2 Wall. (69 U.S.) 123, 128–129 (1864).
287 253 U.S. 300 (1920).
288 Id., 312.
289 Ex parte Secombe, 19 How. (60 U.S.) 9, 13 (1857). In Frazier v. Heebe, 482 U.S. 641 (1987), the Court exercised its supervisory power to invalidate a district court rule respecting the admission of attorneys. See In re Sawyer, 360 U.S. 622 (1959), with reference to the extent to which counsel of record during a pending case may attribute error to the judiciary without being subject to professional discipline.
290 4 Wall. (71 U.S.) 333 (1867).
291 Id., 378–380. Although a lawyer is admitted to practice in a federal court by way of admission to practice in a state court, he is not automatically sent out of the federal court by the same route, when “principles of right and justice” require otherwise. A determination of a state court that an accused practitioner should be disbarred is not conclusively binding on the federal courts. Theard v. United States, 354 U.S. 278 (1957), citing Selling v. Radford, 243 U.S. 46 (1917). Cf. In re Isserman, 345 U.S. 286, 288 (1953), where it was acknowledged that upon disbarment by a state court, Rule 2, par. 5 of the Rules of the Supreme Court imposes upon the attorney the burden of showing cause why he should not be disbarred in the latter, and upon his failure to meet that burden, the Supreme Court will “follow the finding of the state that the character requisite for membership in the bar is lacking.” In 348 U.S. 1 (1954), Isserman’s disbarment was set aside for reason of noncompliance with Rule 8 requiring concurrence of a majority of the Justices participating in order to sustain a disbarment. See also In re Disbarment of Crow, 359 U.S. 1007 (1959). For an extensive treatment of disbarment and American and English precedents thereon, see Ex parte Wall, 107 U.S. 265 (1883).
292 2 M. Farrand, op. cit., n. 1, 430.
293 The proposal was contained in the Virginia Plan. 1 id., 21. For the four rejections, see id., 97–104, 108–110, 138–140, 2 id., 73– 80, 298.
294 Id., 328–329, 342–344. Although a truncated version of the proposal was reported by the Committee of Detail, id., 367, the Convention never took it up.
295 Id., 340–341. The proposal was referred to the Committee of Detail and never heard of again.
296 1 C. Warren, op. cit., n. 18, 108–111; 3 Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, H. Johnston ed. (New York: 1893), 633–635; Hart & Wechsler, op. cit., n.250, 65–67.
297 Hayburn’s Case, 2 Dall. (2 U.S.) 409 (1792), discussed supra, pp.620–621.
298 See, e.g., Justice Brandeis dissenting in Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 341, 345–348 (1936). Cf. Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 97 (1968); Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 331 U.S. 549, 568–575 (1947).
299 6 Wheat. (19 U.S.) 264 (1821).
300 Id., 378.
301 Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 356 (1911).
302 The two terms may be used interchangeably, inasmuch as a “controversy,” if distinguishable from a “case” at all, is so only because it is a less comprehensive word and includes only suits of a civil nature. Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 239 (1937).
303 Osborn v. United States Bank, 9 Wheat. (22 U.S.) 738, 819 (1824).
304 In re Pacific Ry. Comm., 32 F. 241, 255 (C.C. Calif. 1887) (Justice Field). See also Smith v. Adams, 130 U.S. 167, 173–174 (1889).
305 Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 229, 240–241 (1937). Cf. Public Service Comm. v. Wycoff Co., 344 U.S. 237, 242 (1952).
306 Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 94–95 (1968).
307 “The jurisdiction of the federal courts can be invoked only under circumstances which to the expert feel of lawyers constitute a ‘case or controversy.”’ Joint Anti–Fascist Refugee Committee v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 149, 150 (1951).
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