Status of Courts of the District of Columbia.

Through a long course of decisions, the courts of the District of Columbia were regarded as legislative courts upon which Congress could impose nonjudicial functions. In Butterworth v. United States ex rel. Hoe,101 the Court sustained an act of Congress which conferred revisory powers upon the Supreme Court of the District in patent appeals and made its decisions binding only upon the Commissioner of Patents. Similarly, the Court later sustained the authority of Congress to vest revisory powers in the same court over rates fixed by a public utilities commission.102 Not long after this the same rule was applied to the revisory powers of the District Supreme Court over orders of the Federal Radio Commission.103 These rulings were based on the assumption, express or implied, that the courts of the District were legislative courts, created by Congress pursuant to its plenary power to govern the District of Columbia. In dictum in Ex parte Bakelite Corp.,104 while reviewing the history and analyzing the nature of the legislative courts, the Court stated that the courts of the District were legislative courts.

In 1933, nevertheless, the Court abandoned all previous dicta on the subject and found the courts of the District of Columbia to be constitutional courts exercising the judicial power of the United States,105 with the result that it assumed the task of reconciling the performance of nonjudicial functions by such courts with the rule that constitutional courts can exercise only the judicial power of the United States. This task was accomplished by the argument that, in establishing courts for the District, Congress performs dual functions pursuant to two distinct powers: the power to constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court, and its plenary and exclusive power to legislate for the District of Columbia. However, Article III, § 1, limits this latter power with respect to tenure and compensation, but not with respect to vesting legislative and administrative powers in such courts. Subject to the guarantees of personal liberty in the Constitution, “Congress has as much power to vest courts of the District with a variety of jurisdiction and powers as a state legislature has in conferring jurisdiction on its courts.”106

In 1970, Congress formally recognized two sets of courts in the District: federal courts (the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, created pursuant to Article III), and courts equivalent to state and territorial courts (including the District of Columbia Court of Appeals), created pursuant to Article I.107 Congress’s action was sustained in Palmore v. United States.108 When legislating for the District, the Court held, Congress has the power of a local legislature and may, pursuant to Article I, § 8, cl. 17, vest jurisdiction to hear matters of local law and local concerns in courts not having Article III characteristics. The defendant’s claim that he was denied his constitutional right to be tried before an Article III judge was denied on the basis that it was not absolutely necessary that every proceeding in which a charge, claim, or defense based on an act of Congress or a law made under its authority need be conducted in an Article III court. State courts, after all, could hear cases involving federal law as could territorial and military courts. “[T]he requirements of Art. III, which are applicable where laws of national applicability and affairs of national concern are at stake, must in proper circumstances give way to accommodate plenary grants of power to Congress to legislate with respect to specialized areas having particularized needs and warranting distinctive treatment.”109

Footnotes

101
112 U.S. 50 (1884). [Back to text]
102
Keller v. Potomac Elec. Co., 261 U.S. 428 (1923). [Back to text]
103
Federal Radio Comm’n v. General Elec. Co., 281 U.S. 464 (1930). [Back to text]
104
279 U.S. 438, 450–455 (1929). [Back to text]
105
O’Donoghue v. United States, 289 U.S. 516 (1933). [Back to text]
106
289 U.S. at 545. Chief Justice Hughes in dissent argued that Congress’s power over the District was complete in itself and the power to create courts there did not derive at all from Article III. Id. at 551. See the discussion of this point of O’Donoghue in National Mutual Ins. Co. v. Tidewater Transfer Co., 337 U.S. 582 (1949). Cf. Hobson v. Hansen, 265 F. Supp. 902 (D.D.C. 1967) (three-judge court). [Back to text]
107
Pub. L. 91–358, 84 Stat. 475, D.C. Code § 11–101. [Back to text]
108
411 U.S. 389 (1973). [Back to text]
109
411 U.S. at 407–08. See also Pernell v. Southall Realty Co., 416 U.S. 363, 365–365 (1974); Swain v. Pressley, 430 U.S. 372 (1977); Key v. Doyle, 434 U.S. 59 (1978). Under Swain, provision for hearing of motions for post-judgement relief by convicted persons in the District, the present equivalent of habeas for federal convicts, is placed in Article I courts. That there are limits to Congress’s discretion is asserted in dictum in Territory of Guam v. Olsen, 431 U.S. 195, 201–202, 204 (1977). [Back to text]