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ArtIII.S1.4.4 Inherent Power to Issue Judgments

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.

Since 1792, the federal courts have emphasized finality of judgment as an essential attribute of judicial power. In that year, Congress authorized Revolutionary War veterans to file pension claims in circuit courts of the United States, directed the judges to certify to the Secretary of War the degree of a claimant’s disability and their opinion with regard to the proper percentage of monthly pay to be awarded, but empowered the Secretary to withhold judicially certified claimants from the pension list if he suspected “imposition or mistake.” 1 The Justices then on circuit almost immediately forwarded objections to the President, contending that the statute was unconstitutional because the judicial power was constitutionally committed to the Judicial department, the duties imposed by the act were not judicial, and the subjection of a court’s opinions to revision or control by an officer of the Executive or the Legislature was not authorized by the Constitution.2

In addition to the power to issue judgments, each federal court also possesses an inherent power to “to vacate its own judgment upon proof that a fraud has been perpetrated upon the court” or enforcement of the judgment would otherwise create inequity, and to “conduct an independent investigation in order to determine whether it has been the victim of fraud.” 3 By contrast, the Court has held that Congress may not enact legislation that directs courts to reopen a final judgment.4

Federal courts also have authority to issue writs, though it is not clear whether the courts have any inherent power in this area absent statutory authorization by Congress. Since the Founding, Congress has assumed—under its power to establish inferior courts, its power to regulate the jurisdiction of federal courts, and the Necessary and Proper Clause—the power to regulate the issuance of writs.5 Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized the Supreme Court “to issue writs of prohibition to the district courts, when proceeding as courts of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and writs of mandamus, in cases warranted by the principles and usages of law, to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.” 6 Section 14 provided that all “courts of the United States shall have power to issue writs of scire facias, habeas corpus, and all other writs not specially provided for by statute, which may be necessary for the exercise of their respective jurisdictions, and agreeable to the principles and usages of law.” 7

Although the Act of 1789 left the power to issues writs subject largely to the common law, it is significant as a reflection of the belief, in which the courts have generally concurred, that an act of Congress is necessary to confer judicial power to issue writs.8 Whether Article III itself is an independent source of the power of federal courts to fashion equitable remedies for constitutional violations or whether such remedies must fit within congressionally authorized writs or procedures is often left unexplored. In Missouri v. Jenkins, for example, the Court, rejecting a claim that a federal court exceeded judicial power under Article III by ordering local authorities to increase taxes to pay for desegregation remedies, declared that a court order directing a local government body to levy its own taxes is plainly a judicial act within the power of a federal court.9 In the same case, the Court refused to rule on the difficult constitutional issues presented by the state’s claim that the district court had exceeded its constitutional powers in a prior order directly raising taxes, instead ruling that the order had violated principles of comity.10

Act of March 23, 1792, 1 Stat. 243. back
1 American State Papers: Miscellaneous Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States 49, 51, 52 (1832). President Washington transmitted the remonstrances to Congress. 1 Messages and Papers of the Presidents 123, 133 (J. Richardson comp., 1897). The objections are also appended to the order of the Court in Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409, 410 (1792). Note that some of the Justices declared their willingness to perform under the Act as commissioners rather than as judges. Cf. United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. (13 How.) 40, 52–53 (1852). The assumption by judges that they could act in some positions as individuals while remaining judges, an assumption many times acted upon, was approved in Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 397–408 (1989). back
Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 44 (1991) (citing Hazel–Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford–Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238 (1944); Universal Oil Prods. Co. v. Root Refining Co., 328 U.S. 575, 580 (1946)); see also Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 234 (1995). back
Plaut, 514 U.S. 211; see also ArtIII.S1.5.2 Reopening Final Judicial Decisions. back
Frankfurter & Landis, Power of Congress Over Procedure in Criminal Contempts in ‘Inferior’ Federal Courts—A Study in Separation of Powers, 37 Harv. L. Rev. 1010, 1016–1023 (1924). back
1 Stat. 73, 81. “Section 13 was a provision unique to the Court, granting the power of prohibition as to district courts in admiralty and maritime cases.” Wright, Miller & Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure: Jurisdiction 2d § 4005, p. 98 (1996). See also R. Fallon, et al., Hart and Wechsler’s The Federal Courts and the Federal System (6th ed. 2009), Ch. III, p. 268. In Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court limited the authority of Congress to empower the Court to issue writs, striking down Section 13. See 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803) (holding that Section 13 was an attempt by Congress to expand the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond its constitutional limits and was therefore void). back
1 Stat. 73, 81–82. See also United States v. Morgan, 346 U.S. 502 (1954) (holding that the All Writs section of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), gives federal courts the power to employ the ancient writ of coram nobis). back
See, e.g., Penn. Bureau of Correction v. U.S. Marshals Serv., 474 U.S. 34 (1985) (holding that a federal district court lacked authority to order U.S. marshals to transport state prisoners, such authority not being granted by the relevant statutes). While the Court has held that statutory authorization to issue writs is necessary, it has also held that such authorizing legislation is not effective if it exceeds constitutional limits on the federal courts’ jurisdiction. See Marbury, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137. back
495 U.S. 33, 55 (1990) (citing Griffin v. Prince Edward Cnty. Sch. Bd., 377 U.S. 218, 233–34 (1964)) (An order that local officials “exercise the power that is theirs” to levy taxes in order to open and operate a desegregated school system is “within the court’s power if required to assure . . . petitioners that their constitutional rights will no longer be denied them.” ). back
Id. at 50–52. back