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ArtIII.S1.10.1 Overview of Federal Judiciary Protections

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 of the Constitution established the Federal Judiciary as an independent branch of government, alongside the Executive and Legislative Branches. While the Framers generally sought to structure the Constitution to ensure the separation of powers, they expressed particular concern about potential interference with the Judiciary by the political branches. James Wilson remarked at the Constitutional Convention that judges “would be in a bad situation if made to depend on every gust of faction which might prevail” in the political branches.1 Likewise, in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton famously opined that, of the three branches, the Judiciary “will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them.” 2

Two key mechanisms that the Framers adopted to protect the Judiciary from political influence are the Good Behavior Clause and the Compensation Clause. The Good Behavior Clause provides that Supreme Court Justices and other federal judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.” 3 The Supreme Court has interpreted the Clause to grant federal judges life tenure, unless they resign voluntarily or are impeached.4 The Compensation Clause provides that federal judges shall be compensated for their service, and that such compensation “shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.” 5 Together, the two provisions prevent the political branches from seeking to influence the Judiciary by retaliating against disfavored court decisions by removing the judges responsible or docking their pay.6 The following essays briefly outline the history of the Good Behavior Clause and the Compensation Clause, then survey the Supreme Court’s decisions applying the two provisions.7

2 The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, at 429 (Max Farrand ed., 1911). back
The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton). back
U.S. Const. art. III, § 1. back
See, e.g., United States ex rel. Toth v. Quarles, 350 U.S. 11, 16 (1955) (explaining that Article III courts “are presided over by judges appointed for life, subject only to removal by impeachment” ); N. Pipeline Constr. Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50, 59 (1982) (plurality opinion of Brennan, J.) ( “The ‘good Behaviour’ Clause guarantees that Art[icle] III judges shall enjoy life tenure, subject only to removal by impeachment.” ); United States v. Hatter, 532 U.S. 557, 567 (2001) (explaining that the Good Behavior Clause grants federal judges “the practical equivalent of life tenure” ). back
U.S. Const. art. III, § 1. back
Other aspects of the constitutional system also seek to safeguard the independence of the judiciary. For instance, the Supreme Court has construed Article III to limit Congress’s ability to vest judicial functions in non-Article III tribunals on separation of powers grounds. See, e.g., Commodities Future Trading Comm’n v. Schor, 478 U.S. 833, 850 (1986); see also ArtIII.S1.9.1 Overview of Congressional Power to Establish Non-Article III Courts. back
See ArtIII.S1.10.2.1 Overview of Good Behavior Clause; ArtIII.S1.10.3.1 Historical Background on Compensation Clause. back