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ArtIII.S1.5.1 Overview of Congressional Control Over Judicial Power

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 Framers structured the Constitution to promote the separation of powers and, in particular, to protect the Judiciary from undue influence by Congress and the Executive Branch.1 Nonetheless, the Constitution does not impose complete separation between the Judiciary and the political branches. Congress possesses substantial authority to regulate how the federal courts exercise judicial power, albeit subject to certain constitutional limitations.

For instance, the Supreme Court rejected a separation of powers challenge to legislation establishing the U.S. Sentencing Commission as an independent agency within the Judicial Branch.2 On the other hand, while Congress can change the substantive law courts must apply and alter the jurisdiction of the federal courts, sometimes even with respect to pending cases,3 it cannot direct the courts to reopen final judicial decisions.4 The following essays discuss those two issues. Other issues related to congressional control over the Federal Judiciary, including Congress’s power to establish federal courts,5 create court procedural rules,6 set federal court jurisdiction,7 and alter federal judges’ tenure in office,8 are discussed elsewhere in this volume.

See, e.g., 1 The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 44 (Max Farrand ed., 1911) (discussion of how salary protection for judges could support judicial independence); id. at 429 (statement of Mr. Wilson in discussion of the Good Behavior Clause that “Judges would be in a bad situation if made to depend on every gust of faction which might prevail in the two branches of our Govt.” ); cf. The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). back
See ArtIII.S1.5.3 Imposing Non-Adjudicatory Functions on Courts. back
See ArtIII.S2.C2.6 Exceptions Clause and Congressional Control over Appellate Jurisdiction. back
See ArtIII.S1.5.2 Reopening Final Judicial Decisions. back
See ArtIII.S1.8.1 Overview of Establishment of Article III Courts. back
See ArtIII.S1.4.1 Overview of Inherent Powers of Federal Courts back
See, e.g., ArtIII.S2.C1.11.1 Overview of Federal Question Jurisdiction; ArtIII.S2.C2.1 Overview of Supreme Court Jurisdiction; ArtIII.S2.C2.2 Supreme Court Original Jurisdiction; ArtIII.S2.C2.6 Exceptions Clause and Congressional Control over Appellate Jurisdiction. back
See ArtIII.S1.10.2.1 Overview of Good Behavior Clause. back