Appellate Jurisdiction.

In Wiscart v. D’Auchy,1221 the issue was whether the statutory authorization for the Supreme Court to review on writ of error circuit court decisions in “civil actions” gave it power to review admiralty cases.1222 A majority of the Court decided that admiralty cases were “civil actions” and thus review-able; in the course of decision, it was said that “[i]f Congress had provided no rule to regulate our proceedings, we cannot exercise an appellate jurisdiction; and if the rule is provided, we cannot depart from it.”1223 Much the same thought was soon to be expressed by Chief Justice Marshall, although he seems to have felt that in the absence of congressional authorization, the Court’s appellate jurisdiction would have been measured by the constitutional grant. “Had the judicial act created the supreme court, without defining or limiting its jurisdiction, it must have been considered as possessing all the jurisdiction which the constitution assigns to it. The legislature would have exercised the power it possessed of creating a supreme court, as ordained by the constitution; and in omitting to exercise the right of excepting from its constitutional powers, would have necessarily left those powers undiminished.”

“The appellate powers of this court are not given by the judicial act. They are given by the constitution. But they are limited and regulated by the judicial act, and by such other acts as have been passed on the subject.”1224 Later Justices viewed the matter differently from Marshall. “By the constitution of the United States,” it was said in one opinion, “the Supreme Court possesses no appellate power in any case, unless conferred upon it by act of Congress.”1225 In order for a case to come within its appellate jurisdiction, the Court has said, “two things must concur: the Constitution must give the capacity to take it, and an act of Congress must supply the requisite authority.” Moreover, “it is for Congress to determine how far, within the limits of the capacity of this court to take, appellate jurisdiction shall be given, and when conferred, it can be exercised only to the extent and in the manner prescribed by law. In these respects it is wholly the creature of legislation.”1226

This congressional power, conferred by the language of Article III, § 2, cl. 2, which provides that all jurisdiction not original is to be appellate, “with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make,” has been utilized to forestall a decision which the congressional majority assumed would be adverse to its course of action. In Ex parte McCardle,1227 the Court accepted review on certiorari of a denial of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus by the circuit court; the petition was by a civilian convicted by a military commission of acts obstructing Reconstruction. Anticipating that the Court might void, or at least undermine, congressional reconstruction of the Confederate States, Congress enacted over the President’s veto a provision repealing the act which authorized the appeal McCardle had taken.1228 Although the Court had already heard argument on the merits, it then dismissed for want of jurisdiction.1229 “We are not at liberty to inquire into the motives of the legislature. We can only examine into its power under the Constitution; and the power to make exceptions to the appellate jurisdiction of this court is given by express words.”

“What, then, is the effect of the repealing act upon the case before us? We cannot doubt as to this. Without jurisdiction the court cannot proceed at all in any cause. Jurisdiction is power to declare the law, and when it ceases to exist, the only function remaining to the court is that of announcing the fact and dismissing the cause.”1230 Although McCardle grew out of the stresses of Reconstruction, the principle it applied has been applied in later cases.1231


3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 321 (1796). [Back to text]
Judiciary Act of 1789, § 22, 1 Stat. 84. [Back to text]
Wiscart v. D’Auchy, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 321, 327 (1796). The dissent thought that admiralty cases were not “civil actions” and thus that there was no appellate review. Id. at 326–27. See also Clarke v. Bazadone, 5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 212 (1803); Turner v. Bank of North America, 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 8 (1799). [Back to text]
Durousseau v. United States, 10 U.S. (6 Cr.) 307, 313–314 (1810). “Courts which are created by written law, and whose jurisdiction is defined by written law, cannot transcend that jurisdiction.” Ex parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 75, 93 (1807) (Chief Justice Marshall). Marshall had earlier expressed his Durousseau thoughts in United States v. More, 7 U.S. (3 Cr.) 159 (1805). [Back to text]
Barry v. Mercein, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 103, 119 (1847) (case held nonreviewable because minimum jurisdictional amount not alleged). [Back to text]
Daniels v. Railroad Co., 70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 250, 254 (1865) (case held nonreviewable because certificate of division in circuit did not set forth questions in dispute as provided by statute). [Back to text]
73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 318 (1868). That Congress’s apprehensions might have had a basis in fact, see C. FAIRMAN, HISTORY OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, VOL. VI, PT. I: RECONSTRUCTION AND REUNION 1864–88 493–495 (1971). McCardle is fully reviewed at pp. 433–514. [Back to text]
By the Act of February 5, 1867, § 1, 14 Stat. 386, Congress had authorized appeals to the Supreme Court from circuit court decisions denying habeas corpus. Previous to this statute, the Court’s jurisdiction to review habeas corpus decisions, based in § 14 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 81, was somewhat fuzzily conceived. Compare United States v. Hamilton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 17 (1795), and Ex parte Burford, 7 U.S. (3 Cr.) 448 (1806), with Ex parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 75 (1807). The repealing statute was the Act of March 27, 1868, 15 Stat. 44. The repealed act was reenacted March 3, 1885. 23 Stat. 437. [Back to text]
Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506 (1869). In the course of the opinion, Chief Justice Chase speculated about the Court’s power in the absence of any legislation in tones reminiscent of Marshall’s comments. Id. at 513. [Back to text]
74 U.S. at 514. [Back to text]
See, e.g., Justice Frankfurter’s remarks in National Mutual Ins. Co. v. Tidewater Transfer Co., 337 U.S. 582, 655 (1948) (dissenting): “Congress need not give this Court any appellate power; it may withdraw appellate jurisdiction once conferred and it may do so even while a case is sub judice.” In The Francis Wright, 105 U.S. 381, 385–386 (1882), upholding Congress’s power to confine Supreme Court review in admiralty cases to questions of law, the Court said: “[W]hile the appellate power of this court under the Constitution extends to all cases within the judicial power of the United States, actual jurisdiction under the power is confined within such limits as Congress sees fit to prescribe. . . . What those powers shall be, and to what extent they shall be exercised, are, and always have been, proper subjects of legislative control. Authority to limit the jurisdiction necessarily carries with it authority to limit the use of the jurisdiction. Not only may whole classes of cases be kept out of the jurisdiction altogether, but particular classes of questions may be subjected to reexamination and review, while others are not.” See also Luckenbuch S. S. Co. v. United States, 272 U.S. 533, 537 (1926); American Construction Co. v. Jacksonville, T. & K.W. Ry., 148 U.S. 372, 378 (1893); United States v. Bitty, 208 U.S. 393 (1908); United States v. Young, 94 U.S. 258 (1876). Numerous restrictions on the exercise of appellate jurisdiction have been upheld. E.g., Congress for a hundred years did not provide for a right of appeal to the Supreme Court in criminal cases, except upon a certification of division by the circuit court: at first appeal was provided in capital cases and then in others. F. Frankfurter & J. Landis, supra at 79, 109–120. Other limitations noted heretofore include minimum jurisdictional amounts, restrictions of review to questions of law and to questions certified from the circuits, and the scope of review of state court decisions of federal constitutional questions. See Walker v. Taylor, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 64 (1847). Though McCardle is the only case in which Congress successfully forestalled an expected decision by shutting off jurisdiction, other cases have been cut off while pending on appeal, either inadvertently, Insurance Co. v. Ritchie, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 541 (1866), or intentionally, Railroad Co. v. Grant, 98 U.S. 398 (1878), by raising the requirements for jurisdiction without a reservation for pending cases. See also Bruner v. United States, 343 U.S. 112 (1952); District of Columbia v. Eslin, 183 U.S. 62 (1901). [Back to text]