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ArtIII.S1.1 Overview of the Judicial Vesting Clause

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 III, Section 1 of the Constitution vests the “judicial Power of the United States” in the federal courts.1 Associate Justice Samuel Miller described judicial power as “the power of a court to decide and pronounce a judgment and carry it into effect between persons and parties who bring a case before it for decision.” 2 The Supreme Court has explained that judicial power is “the right to determine actual controversies arising between diverse litigants, duly instituted in courts of proper jurisdiction.” 3 Judicial power thus confers on federal courts the power to decide cases and to render a judgment that conclusively resolves each case.

While the Constitution provides that the judicial power “shall be vested” in the federal courts, the vesting of most of the judicial power is neither automatic nor mandatory. The Supreme Court exercises original jurisdiction over a limited class of cases, meaning that such cases may be filed directly in the Supreme Court rather than reaching the Court on appeal.4 That original jurisdiction has been deemed to arise directly from the Constitution.5 Outside the limited category of cases subject to original jurisdiction, the federal courts’ authority to hear cases depends on both constitutional text and implementing statutes. Two prerequisites must be present before the federal courts may hear a case: first, the Constitution must have given the courts the capacity to receive jurisdiction, and, second, an act of Congress must have conferred it.6 Congress has never vested in the federal courts all the jurisdiction that the Constitution would allow it to grant,7 and the Supreme Court has not interpreted the Constitution to require that Congress confer the entire jurisdiction it might.8

One key feature of the federal judicial power is the power of judicial review, the authority of the federal courts to declare that federal or state government actions violate the Constitution. The two essays that follow discuss the historical background of judicial review and Supreme Court doctrine related to judicial review, particularly the seminal case Marbury v. Madison.9

The general judicial power also includes certain ancillary powers of courts such as the authority to punish for contempt of their authority,10 to issue writs in aid of jurisdiction when authorized by statute,11 to make rules governing their process in the absence of statutory authorizations or prohibitions,12 to order their own process so as to prevent abuse, oppression, and injustice, and to protect their own jurisdiction and officers in the protection of property in custody of law,13 to appoint masters in chancery, referees, auditors, and other investigators,14 and to admit and disbar attorneys.15 The inherent powers of the federal courts are discussed in more detail in later essays.16

U.S. Const. art. III, § 1. back
Justice Samuel Miller, On the Constitution 314 (1891). back
Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 361 (1911). back
U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 2. back
See ArtIII.S2.C2.2 Supreme Court Original Jurisdiction. back
The Mayor v. Cooper, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 247, 252 (1868); Cary v. Curtis, 44 U.S. (3 How.) 236 (1845); Sheldon v. Sill, 49 U.S. (8 How.) 441 (1850); United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 32, 33 (1812); Kline v. Burke Constr. Co., 260 U.S. 226 (1922). Some judges have expressed the opinion that Congress’s authority is limited by provisions of the Constitution such as the Due Process Clause, so that a limitation on jurisdiction that denied a litigant access to any remedy might be unconstitutional. Cf. Eisentrager v. Forrestal, 174 F.2d 961, 965–966 (D.C. Cir. 1949), rev’d on other grounds sub nom, Johnson v. Eisentrager, 339 U.S. 763 (1950); Battaglia v. General Motors Corp., 169 F.2d 254, 257 (2d Cir. 1948), cert. denied, 335 U.S. 887 (1948); Petersen v. Clark, 285 F. Supp. 700, 703 n.5 (N.D. Calif. 1968); Murray v. Vaughn, 300 F. Supp. 688, 694–695 (D.R.I. 1969). The Supreme Court has had no occasion to consider the question. back
For discussion of constitutional and statutory grants of federal court jurisdiction in two key areas, see ArtIII.S2.C1.11.1 Overview of Federal Question Jurisdiction and ArtIII.S2.C1.18.1 Overview of Diversity Jurisdiction. back
See, e.g., Turner v. Bank of North America, 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 8, 10 (1799) (Justice Chase). But see Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304, 328–331 (1816); 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833) 1584–1590; Akhil Amar, A Neo-Federalist View of Article III: Separating the Two Tiers of Federal Jurisdiction, 65 B.U. L. Rev. 205 (1985). back
5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803). See ArtIII.S1.2 Historical Background of Judicial Review and ArtIII.S1.3 Marbury v. Madison and Judicial Review. back
Michaelson v. United States, 266 U.S. 42 (1924). back
McIntire v. Wood, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 504 (1813); Ex parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 75 (1807). back
Wayman v. Southard, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 1 (1825). back
Gumbel v. Pitkin, 124 U.S. 131 (1888). back
Ex parte Peterson, 253 U.S. 300 (1920). back
Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 333, 378 (1867). back
See ArtIII.S1.4.1 Overview of Inherent Powers of Federal Courts. back