Jurisdiction of the Inferior Federal Courts.

The Framers, as we have seen,1232 divided with regard to the necessity of courts inferior to the Supreme Court, simply authorized Congress to create such courts, in which, then, judicial power “shall be vested” and to which nine classes of cases and controversies “shall extend.”1233 While Justice Story deemed it imperative of Congress to create inferior federal courts and, when they had been created, to vest them with all the jurisdiction they were capable of receiving,1234 the First Congress acted upon a wholly different theory. Inferior courts were created, but jurisdiction generally over cases involving the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States was not given them, diversity jurisdiction was limited by a minimal jurisdictional amount requirement and by a prohibition on creation of diversity through assignments, equity jurisdiction was limited to those cases where a “plain, adequate, and complete remedy” could not be had at law.1235 This care for detail in conferring jurisdiction upon the inferior federal courts bespoke a conviction by Members of Congress that it was within their power to confer or to withhold jurisdiction at their discretion. The cases have generally sustained this view.

Thus, in Turner v. Bank of North America,1236 the issue was the jurisdiction of the federal courts in a suit to recover on a promissory note between two citizens of the same state but in which the note had been assigned to a citizen of a second state so that suit could be brought in federal court under its diversity jurisdiction, a course of action prohibited by § 11 of the Judiciary Act of 1789.1237 Counsel for the bank argued that the grant of judicial power by the Constitution was a direct grant of jurisdiction, provoking from Chief Justice Ellsworth a considered doubt1238 and from Justice Chase a firm rejection. “The notion has frequently been entertained, that the federal courts derive their judicial power immediately from the constitution: but the political truth is, that the disposal of the judicial power (except in a few specified instances) belongs to Congress. If Congress has given the power to this Court, we possess it, not otherwise: and if Congress has not given the power to us, or to any other Court, it still remains at the legislative disposal. Besides, Congress is not bound, and it would, perhaps, be inexpedient, to enlarge the jurisdiction of the federal courts, to every subject, in every form, which the constitution might warrant.”1239 Applying § 11, the Court held that the circuit court had lacked jurisdiction.

Chief Justice Marshall himself soon made similar assertions,1240 and the early decisions of the Court continued to be sprinkled with assumptions that the power of Congress to create inferior federal courts necessarily implied “the power to limit jurisdiction of those Courts to particular objects.”1241 In Cary v. Curtis,1242 a statute making final the decision of the Secretary of the Treasury in certain tax disputes was challenged as an unconstitutional deprivation of the judicial power of the courts. The Court decided otherwise. “[T]he judicial power of the United States, although it has its origin in the Constitution, is (except in enumerated instances applicable exclusively to this court), dependent for its distribution and organization, and for the modes of its exercise, entirely upon the action of Congress, who possess the sole power of creating tribunals (inferior to the Supreme Court), for the exercise of the judicial power, and of investing them with jurisdiction either limited, concurrent, or exclusive, and of withholding jurisdiction from them in the exact degrees and character which to Congress may seem proper for the public good.”1243 Five years later, the validity of the assignee clause of the Judiciary Act of 17891244 was placed in issue in Sheldon v. Sill,1245 in which diversity of citizenship had been created by assignment of a negotiable instrument. It was argued that, because the right of a citizen of any state to sue citizens of another flowed directly from Article III, Congress could not restrict that right. Unanimously, the Court rejected this contention and held that because the Constitution did not create inferior federal courts but rather authorized Congress to create them, Congress was also empowered to define their jurisdiction and to withhold jurisdiction of any of the enumerated cases and controversies in Article III. The case and the principle have been cited and reaffirmed numerous times,1246 including in a case under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.1247


Supra, “One Supreme Court” and “Inferior Courts”. [Back to text]
Article III, § 1, 2. [Back to text]
Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304, 374 (1816). For an effort to reframe Justice Story’s position in modern analytical terms, see the writings of Professors Amar and Clinton, supra and infra. [Back to text]
Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 73. See Warren, New Light on the History of the Judiciary Act of 1789, 37 HARV. L. REV. 49 (1923). A modern study of the first Judiciary Act that demonstrates the congressional belief in discretion to structure jurisdiction is Casto, The First Congress’s Understanding of Its Authority over the Federal Courts’ Jurisdiction, 26 B. C. L. REV. 1101 (1985). [Back to text]
4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 8 (1799). [Back to text]
“[N]or shall any district or circuit court have cognizance of any suit to recover the contents of any promissory note or other chose in action in favour of an assignee, unless a suit might have been prosecuted in such court to recover the said contents if no assignment had been made, except in cases of foreign bills of exchange.” 1 Stat. 79. [Back to text]
Turner v. Bank of North America, 4 U.S. (4 Dall.) 8, 10 (1799). [Back to text]
4 U.S. at 10. [Back to text]
In Ex parte Bollman, 8 U.S. (4 Cr.) 75, 93 (1807), Marshall observed that “courts which are created by written law, and whose jurisdiction is defined by written law, cannot transcend that jurisdiction.” [Back to text]
United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, 11 U.S. (7 Cr.) 32, 33 (1812). Justice Johnson continued: “All other Courts [besides the Supreme Court] created by the general government possess no jurisdiction but what is given them by the power that creates them, and can be vested with none but what the power ceded to the general government will authorize them to confer.” See also Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 657, 721–722 (1838). [Back to text]
44 U.S. (3 How.) 236 (1845). [Back to text]
44 U.S. at 244–45. Justices McLean and Story dissented, arguing that the right to construe the law in all matters of controversy is of the essence of judicial power. Id. at 264. [Back to text]
Supra. [Back to text]
49 U.S. (8 How.) 441 (1850). [Back to text]
E.g., Kline v. Burke Constr. Co., 260 U.S. 226, 233–234 (1922); Ladew v. Tennessee Copper Co., 218 U.S. 357, 358 (1910); Venner v. Great Northern R. Co., 209 U.S. 24, 35 (1908); Kentucky v. Powers, 201 U.S. 1, 24 (1906); Stevenson v. Fain, 195 U.S. 165, 167 (1904); Plaquemines Tropical Fruit Co. v. Henderson, 170 U.S. 511, 513–521 (1898); The Mayor v. Cooper, 73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 247, 251–252 (1868). [Back to text]
By the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress required covered states that wished to be relieved of coverage to bring actions to this effect in the District Court of the District of Columbia. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 331 (1966), Chief Justice Warren for the Court said: “Despite South Carolina’s argument to the contrary, Congress might appropriately limit litigation under this provision to a single court in the District of Columbia, pursuant to its constitutional power under Art. III, § 1, to ‘ordain and establish’ inferior federal tribunals.” See also Palmore v. United States, 411 U.S. 389, 400–02 (1973); Swain v. Pressley, 430 U.S. 372 (1977); Taylor v. St. Vincent’s Hosp., 369 F. Supp. 948 (D. Mont. 1973), aff’d, 523 F.2d 75 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 424 U.S. 948 (1976). [Back to text]