ArtIII.S1.4.2 Inherent Powers over Judicial Procedure

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.

The Constitution divides the authority to set court procedures between the legislative and judicial branches. Congress enjoys substantial authority to make procedural rules for the courts. That authority is not expressly granted in the Constitution. Instead, the Supreme Court has explained that the power arises from Congress’s authority to structure the federal court system, supplemented by the Necessary and Proper Clause.1 In the 1825 case Wayman v. Southard, the Court held it to be “completely self-evident” that Congress has the authority to establish procedural rules for the federal courts.2 The Court has approved procedural statutes that left some discretion to the federal courts, but has held that the courts do not have the inherent authority to expand their jurisdiction or to issue or execute judgments beyond what Congress has authorized.3

In 1934, recognizing the limited competence of the legislature to regulate court procedure and acknowledging the inherent power of courts to regulate the conduct of their business, Congress enacted the Rules Enabling Act.4 The Act authorizes the Supreme Court to “prescribe general rules of practice and procedure and rules of evidence” for cases in the federal courts.5 Such rules may not “abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.” 6 Procedural rules also may not alter the jurisdiction or venue of federal courts.7 Subject to those limitations, the Court has rejected constitutional challenges to rules promulgated under the Rules Enabling Act.8

In addition to the legislative power to regulate court procedures, some of which Congress has delegated to the judicial branch, the courts themselves possess inherent equitable powers over their procedures. This inherent power serves to prevent abuse, oppression, and injustice, and to protect the courts’ jurisdiction and officers.9 The Supreme Court has explained that such power is essential to and inherent in the organization of courts of justice.10

While the Court has not precisely delineated the outer boundaries of the federal courts’ inherent powers to manage their own internal affairs, the Court has recognized two limits on the exercise of such authority.11 First, a court, in exercising its inherent powers over its own processes, must act reasonably in response to a specific problem or issue confronting the court’s fair administration of justice.12 Second, any exercise of an inherent power cannot conflict with any express grant of or limitation on the district court’s power as contained in a statute or rule, such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.13 Thus, as with rules promulgated under the Rules Enabling Act, no court-made rule can enlarge or restrict jurisdiction or abrogate or modify the substantive law. This limit applies equally to courts of law, equity, and admiralty, to rules prescribed by the Supreme Court for the guidance of lower courts, and to rules that lower courts make for their own guidance.14

Applying the foregoing standards, the Supreme Court has recognized that a federal district court, as an exercise of its inherent powers, can, in limited circumstances, rescind an order to discharge a jury and recall that jury in a civil case.15 The Court has also acknowledged that federal courts possess the inherent power to control other aspects of regulating internal court proceedings, hearing a motion in limine;16 dismissing a case for the convenience of the parties or witnesses because of the availability of an alternative forum;17 and staying proceedings pending the resolution of parallel actions in other courts.18 The federal courts also possess inherent power to amend their records, correct the errors of the clerk or other court officers, and rectify defects or omissions in their records.19 The exercise of an inherent power can, at times, allow for departures from even long-established, judicially crafted common law rules; however, courts are not generally free to discover new inherent powers that are contrary to civil practice as recognized in the common law.20

Incident to the judicial power, federal courts possess inherent authority to supervise the conduct of their officers, parties, witnesses, counsel, and jurors by imposing rules to protect the rights of litigants and the orderly administration of justice.21 Such supervision may be accomplished through a number of different means, including promulgation of general procedural rules as discussed in this essay, oversight of admission to the bar, imposition of contempt or sanctions for parties or attorney who disobey court orders or engage in misconduct, or case-by-case decisions to exclude individuals from the courtroom.22

Hanna v. Plumer, 380 U.S. 460, 472 (1965). back
23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 1, 4 (1825). back
Fink v. O’Neil, 106 U.S. 272, 278, 280 (1882). back
28 U.S.C. §§ 20712077. back
Id. § 2072(a). back
Id. § 2072(b). The Rules Enabling Act requires the Court to notify Congress of proposed amendments to procedural rules for the lower federal courts, but amendments take effect automatically unless Congress enacts legislation to reject or modify a proposed change. Id. §§ 2073, 2074. The Act also empowers the Supreme Court to create its own procedural rules, which need not be submitted to Congress before they take effect. Id. § 2071(a). back
United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 589–590 (1941); Mississippi Pub. Corp. v. Murphree, 326 U.S. 438 (1946). back
E.g., Sibbach v. Wilson, 312 U.S. 1, 14 (1941). back
Gumbel v. Pitkin, 124 U.S. 131 (1888); Covell v. Heyman, 111 U.S. 176 (1884); Buck v. Colbath, 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 334 (1866). back
Eberly v. Moore, 65 U.S. (24 How.) 147 (1861); Arkadelphia Co. v. St. Louis S.W. Ry., 249 U.S. 134 (1919). back
See Dietz v. Bouldin, 579 U.S. ___, No. 15–458, slip op. at 4 (2016). back
Id. at 4–5. back
Id. at 4. back
Washington-Southern Nav. Co. v. Baltimore & P.S.B.C. Co., 263 U.S. 629, 635, 636 (1924). The Supreme Court does not prescribe how Courts of Appeals should exercise discretion vested in them. As long as a lower court keeps within the bounds of judicial discretion, its action is not reviewable. In re Burwell, 350 U.S. 521 (1956). back
Dietz v. Bouldin, 579 U.S. ___, No. 15–458, slip op. at 5–7 (acknowledging that while it is reasonable to allow a jury to reconvene after a formal discharge to correct an error and while such an exercise of authority does not conflict with a rule or statute, the exercise of the inherent power to rescind a discharge order needs to be carefully circumscribed to guarantee the existence of an impartial jury). The rule provided in Dietz extends only to civil cases, as additional constitutional concerns—namely, the attachment of the double jeopardy bar—might arise if a court were to recall a jury after discharge in a criminal case. See id. at 10. back
See Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n.4 (1984). A motion in limine is a preliminary motion resolved by a court prior to trial and generally regards the admissibility of evidence. See Black’s Law Dictionary 1171 (10th ed. 2014). back
See Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501, 507–08 (1947). This doctrine is called forum non conveniens. See Black’s Law Dictionary 770 (10th ed. 2014). back
See Landis v. N. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254 (1936). back
Gagnon v. United States, 193 U.S. 451, 456–59 (1904). The power to amend records conveys no power to create a record or recreate one of which no evidence exists. Id. back
See Dietz, slip op. at 12. back
McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 266 (1915); Griffin v. Thompson, 43 U.S. (2 How.) 244, 257 (1844). See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985) (appeals court 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). back
See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 43–44 (1991) (collecting cases and surveying inherent powers). For further discussion of the contempt and sanctions powers, see ArtIII.S1.4.3 Inherent Powers over Contempt and Sanctions. back