ArtIII.S1.9.4 District of Columbia and Territorial Courts

Article III, 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.

Article IV of the Constitution empowers Congress to “make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” 1 Congress has periodically invoked that authority to establish courts in U.S. territories. The Supreme Court’s first opportunity to address the use of territorial courts came in the 1828 case Florida in American Insurance Co. v. Canter.2 In Canter, the Court assessed the constitutionality of courts established in the territory of Florida. Challengers to the territorial court’s jurisdiction argued that it could not properly hear cases arising under admiralty law, which instead must be heard in Article III courts.3 Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the Court, disagreed, explaining that territorial courts “are not constitutional courts, in which the judicial power conferred by the constitution on the general government, can be deposited. They are incapable of receiving it.” Instead, the Florida courts were “created in virtue of the general right of sovereignty which exists in the government, or in virtue of that clause which enables Congress to make all needful rules and regulations, respecting the territory belonging to the United States.” Thus, he held, the courts’ jurisdiction “is conferred by Congress, in the execution of those general powers which that body possesses over the territories of the United States.” 4 The Court noted that while, in the states, admiralty jurisdiction can be exercised only in courts established pursuant to Article III, the same limitation does not apply to the territorial courts, for “[i]n legislating for them Congress exercises the combined powers of the general, and of a state government.” 5 Florida’s territorial courts were abolished when the territory became a state. Currently, the district courts in the federal territories of Guam,6 the Virgin Islands,7 and the Northern Mariana Islands8 are legislative courts.9

A similar constitutional authority allows Congress to establish courts in the District of Columbia. Under Article I, Congress has the authority to “exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever” over the District of Columbia.10 A series of early Supreme Court decisions treated the District of Columbia courts as legislative courts upon which Congress could impose nonjudicial functions. In Butterworth v. United States ex rel. Hoe, the Court sustained an act of Congress that conferred revisory powers upon the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in patent appeals and made its decisions binding upon the Commissioner of Patents.11 The Court later sustained the authority of Congress to vest revisory powers in the same court over rates fixed by a public utilities commission12 and orders of the Federal Radio Commission.13 Those rulings were based on the assumption, express or implied, that the courts of the District were legislative courts, created by Congress pursuant to its plenary power to govern the District of Columbia. Similarly, in dictum in Ex parte Bakelite Corp., while reviewing the history and analyzing the nature of the legislative courts, the Court stated that the courts of the District were legislative courts.14

In the 1933 case O’Donoghue v. United States, the Court departed from its prior statements on the subject and held that the courts of the District of Columbia were constitutional courts exercising the judicial power of the United States.15 Thus, the Court concluded, a federal law seeking to reduce judicial salaries could not apply to judges on the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Having decided that the D.C. courts were Article III courts, the Supreme Court had to reconcile the fact that such courts performed nonjudicial functions with the rule that constitutional courts can exercise only the judicial power of the United States. The Court did so by holding that, in establishing courts for the District, Congress performs dual functions pursuant to two distinct powers: its power to constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court, and its plenary and exclusive power to legislate for the District of Columbia. The Court held that Article III, Section 1, limits the latter power with respect to tenure and compensation but not with respect to vesting legislative and administrative powers in such courts. Subject to the guarantees of personal liberty in the Constitution, the Court concluded, “Congress has as much power to vest courts of the District with a variety of jurisdiction and powers as a state legislature has in conferring jurisdiction on its courts.” 16

At the time the Court decided O’Donoghue, the D.C. courts had both local jurisdiction over District matters, similar to that of state courts, and also federal jurisdiction equivalent to that of other inferior federal courts. In 1970, Congress replaced the previous D.C. court system with two sets of courts: federal courts created pursuant to Article III (the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia), and local courts similar to state and territorial courts, created pursuant to Article I (including the District of Columbia Court of Appeals).17 In Palmore v. United States, a criminal defendant challenged the constitutionality of the District’s Article I courts, arguing that charges under the D.C. criminal code amounted to a prosecution under federal law, and he was therefore entitled to consideration before an Article III court.18 The Supreme Court rejected the argument, explaining that it was not necessary that every proceeding involving an act of Congress or a law made under its authority be conducted in an Article III court. State courts, after all, could hear cases involving federal law, as could territorial and military courts. Thus, “the requirements of Art. III, which are applicable where laws of national applicability and affairs of national concern are at stake, must in proper circumstances give way to accommodate plenary grants of power to Congress to legislate with respect to specialized areas having particularized needs and warranting distinctive treatment.” 19

U.S. Const. art. IV, § 3, cl. 2. back
26 U.S. (1 Pet.) 511 (1828). back
Judges of these courts did not enjoy life tenure, but instead sat for four-year terms. Id. at 512. back
Id. at 546. back
Id. back
48 U.S.C. § 1424, 1424b. back
48 U.S.C. § 1611, 1614. back
48 U.S.C. § 1821. back
The federal district court in Puerto Rico is an Article III court. See 28 U.SC. § 119. back
U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 17. back
112 U.S. 50 (1884). back
Keller v. Potomac Elec. Co., 261 U.S. 428 (1923). back
Fed. Radio Comm’n v. Gen. Elec. Co., 281 U.S. 464 (1930). back
279 U.S. 438, 450–455 (1929). back
289 U.S. 516, 551 (1933). back
Id. at 545. back
Pub. L. No. 91–358, 84 Stat. 475, D.C. Code § 11–101. back
411 U.S. 389 (1973). back
Id. at 407–08. back