CRS Annotated Constitution
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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 Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
The Constitution is almost completely silent concerning the organization of the federal judiciary. “That there should be a national judiciary was readily accepted by all.”1 But whether it was to consist of one high court at the apex of a federal judicial system or a high court exercising appellate jurisdiction over state courts that would initially hear all but a minor fraction of cases raising national issues was a matter of considerable controversy.2 The Virginia Plan provided for a “National judiciary [to] be established to consist of one or more supreme tribunals, and of inferior tribunals to be chosen by the National Legislature. . . . ”3 In the Committee of the Whole, the proposition “that a national judiciary be established” was unanimously adopted,4 but the clause “to consist of One supreme tribunal, and of one or more inferior tribunals”5 was first agreed to, then reconsidered, and the provision for inferior tribunals stricken out, it being argued that state courts could adequately adjudicate all necessary matters while the supreme tribunal would protect the national interest and assure uniformity.6 [p.598]Wilson and Madison thereupon moved to authorize Congress “to appoint inferior tribunals,”7 which carried the implication that Congress could in its discretion either designate the state courts to hear federal cases or create federal courts. The word “appoint” was adopted and over the course of the Convention changed into phrasing that suggests something of an obligation on Congress to establish inferior federal courts.8 The “good behavior” clause excited no controversy,9 while the only substantial dispute with regard to denying Congress the power to intimidate judges through actual or threatened reduction of salaries came on Madison’s motion to bar increases as well as decreases.10
One Supreme Court
The Convention left up to Congress decision on the size and composition of the Supreme Court, the time and place for sitting, its internal organization, save for the reference to the Chief Justice in the impeachment provision,11 and other matters. These details Congress filled up in the Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the seminal statutes of the United States.12 By the Act, the Court was made to consist of a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices.13 The number was gradually increased until it reached a total of ten under the act of March 3, 1863.14 As one of the Reconstruction Congress’ restrictions on President Andrew Johnson, the number[p.599]was reduced to seven as vacancies should occur.15 The number actually never fell below eight before the end of Johnson’s term, and Congress thereupon made the number nine.16
Proposals have been made at various times for an organization of the Court into sections or divisions. No authoritative judicial expression is available, although Chief Justice Hughes in a letter to Senator Wheeler in 1937 expressed doubts concerning the validity of such a device and stated that “the Constitution does not appear to authorize two or more Supreme Courts functioning in effect as separate courts.”17
Congress has also determined the time and place of sessions of the Court. It utilized this power once in 1801 to change its terms so that for fourteen months the Court did not convene, so as to forestall a constitutional attack on the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801.18
Congress also acted in the Judiciary Act of 1789 to create inferior courts. Thirteen district courts were constituted to have four sessions annually,19 and three circuit courts were established to consist jointly of two Supreme Court justices each and one of the district judges of such districts which were to meet twice annually in the various districts comprising the circuit.20 This system had substantial faults in operation, not the least of which was the burden imposed on the Justices who were required to travel thousands of miles each year under bad conditions.21 Despite numerous ef[p.600]forts to change this system, it persisted, except for one brief period, until 1891.22 Since then, the federal judicial system has consisted of district courts with original jurisdiction, intermediate appellate courts, and the Supreme Court.
Abolition of Courts.—That Congress “may from time to time ordain and establish” inferior courts would seem to imply that the system may be reoriented from time to time and that Congress is not restricted to the status quo but may expand and contract the units of the system; but if the judges are to have life tenure what is to be done with them when the system is contracted? Unfortunately, the first exercise of the power occurred in a highly politicized situation, and no definite answer emerged. By the Judiciary Act of February 13, 1801,23 passed in the closing weeks of the Adams Administration, the districts were reorganized, and six circuit courts consisting of three circuit judges each were created. Adams filled the positions with deserving Federalists, and upon coming to power the Jeffersonians set in motion plans to repeal the Act, which were carried out.24 No provision was made for the displaced judges, apparently under the theory that if there were no courts there could be no judges to sit on them.25 The validity of the repeal was questioned in Stuart v. Laird,26 where Justice Paterson scarcely noticed the argument in rejecting it.
Not until 1913 did Congress again utilize its power to abolish a federal court, this time the unfortunate Commerce Court, which had disappointed the expectations of most of its friends.27 But this time Congress provided for the redistribution of the Commerce Court judges among the circuit courts as well as a transfer of its jurisdiction to the district courts.
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