Saturday, April 23, 2016

Constitution Series Part 20: Article III, Section 1

Article III establishes the federal court system, the third and final branch of the United States government. Each branch is separate and more or less independent from each other, each serving a vital function. Congress is re-elected frequently, representing the various peoples of the country to create laws and control the budget. The President controls the military and foreign relations while enforcing the nation's laws.

Let's see where the Supreme Court falls in this dynamic.


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 creation of each branch of the government tends to follow the same syntax in the first section of each of the first three articles: The _______ power of the United States shall be vested in _______. In this way, the language takes the familiar concepts of legislative, executive, and judicial powers and applies them to the terms we've settled on for each of these bodies: a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court.

The establishment of the courts as a third branch of the government was extremely significant. In England, both judicial and executive power was held by the king. Consider, for instance, the fictional character Judge Dredd, himself a creation of English comic artists: though Dredd is a protagonist, the concept of a single entity arresting, trying, and convicting is pretty terrifying, at least to me.

A typical judge is expected to hear the facts of a case and compare that to the word of the law. Based on those facts, they render a judgment. A judge is to remain impartial to either side (something that would be difficult to do if the judicial and executive branches were combined) when rendering judgment. This has been the basis of the judicial system since its inception.

Federal courts, however, have another layer to their duties: they aren't merely to interpret the law and apply it to a case, they are to interpret a law in relation to the Constitution. The law of the Constitution trumps any laws that may contradict it, and it's through this that federal courts end up often putting not just people but the laws themselves on trial. A law deemed unconstitutional is, of course, unenforceable.

This ability for the courts to deem a law unconstitutional is called "judicial review," and the right for United States federal courts to do this was clarified in The Federalist No. 78, in which Alexander Hamilton explained the expectations placed on the courts: specifically, that they were "designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body."

This power was first put to the test in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison. William Marbury was appointed to be a Justice of the Peace by John Adams shortly before he was replaced by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. As noted in Article II, Section 3, though, the executive branch also needs to commission its appointees after confirmation, and Marbury never received his commission. In short, the Adams Administration sent out as many commissions as they could before making way for the Jefferson Administration, but some weren't sent in time, including Marbury's. It was expected that Jefferson's Secretary of State, James Madison, would finish up that duty, but he didn't. Marbury filed a suit with the Supreme Court via a "writ of mandamus," which is a court order established in the Judiciary Act of 1789 (which also happened to establish the Supreme Court). Though the Supreme Court decided that Marbury's grievance was justified and that Madison should send his commission, it was all rendered moot by the fact that the Supreme Court also found that a "writ of mandamus" compelling the Supreme Court to review the case by bypassing the lower courts was itself unconstitutional since the Judiciary Act of 1789 altered the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction--basically, what cases the Supreme Court can see without first being reviewed by the lower courts, as established in Article III, Section 2 (which we'll get to later). And, so, that provision of the law was struck, establishing the ability of the courts to alter legislation.

Marbury v. Madison was a hotly debated decision, and many people, from President Thomas Jefferson at the time to modern legal scholars, have questioned that ruling. Still, the power of judicial review has only (though slowly) expanded since that ruling in 1803.

The Supreme Court only reviews cases that are considered "justiciable," though the definition of the word has changed over time. Suffice to say that every landmark case has added something new to the judicial process and the extent of judicial power.

The willingness of the court to affect change by way of judicial review changes depending on the people sitting on the court, though, and there have been times when judicial overreach has crippled the court's power. The Dred Scott case in 1857, for instance, which upheld that a black man (Mr. Dred Scott) and his family were not freed by having moved from a state in which slavery was legal to a territory in which it was not. That the courts sided with the slavers in that case tarnished the reputation of the courts, especially following the Civil War, which the case indirectly led to.

Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers, claimed that the Supreme Court was the weakest of the three branches of the government by virtue of its reactive nature. Congress and the President can create and enforce laws directly, actively influencing the government. The courts, however, can only influence the law if and when that law is called into question and brought up through the court system.

However, I disagree that this makes the Supreme Court less powerful than the other branches. Their power is simply more subtle, and I believe subtle power is difficult to fight. Simply by virtue of the existence of the Supreme Court, both Congress and the President must consider their actions and laws carefully lest they find their actions under review by the courts. It keeps the Constitution at the forefront of lawmakers' minds as they write and approve their laws.

The size of the Supreme Court is determined by Congress (as established in Article I), with the number of Justices dropping as low as five and swelling as high as ten over the years. Currently, there are nine seats on the Supreme Court.

Congress also determines the size and organization of the lower federal courts, which is currently organized into districts. The judicial process goes like this:
1) A federal dispute or crime is brought to one of the 94 federal district courts (at least one in each state, plus several in U.S. territories). The case is heard by a federal judge and ruled. Most disputes end here with the ruling by the federal judge.
2) The ruling of a district court can be appealed. All appeals are heard by the Court of Appeals (naturally), and the ruling of the Court of Appeals is almost always final.
3) The appeal ruling can itself be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, but the Supreme Court has the right to defer to the Court of Appeals on any case and decide not to hear it. Also, rarely, a case can actually bypass the Court of Appeals and come directly to the Supreme Court. All told, the Supreme Court typically hears about 80 cases each year out of the thousands that appeal to them.

All federal court judges, from the district courts to the Supreme Court, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, as established in Article II. At the time of this writing (April 2016) there are over 80 vacancies, including one seat on the Supreme Court, that have not been filled due to Senate refusal to confirm appointments.

Anyway, we've spent so much time exploring the first sentence of this section that I'm going to remind you of the second sentence real quick before we move on:
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.
Unlike Congressmen and Presidents, who have set term limits, a federal judge holds their office "during good Behaviour," which is interpreted as meaning "for life." Basically, in order to ensure that judges feel independent from the legislative and executive branches of the government, their jobs can not be subject to the whims of those branches or the political parties that control them. After a judge is appointed, the only way they can be removed from office is to retire, die, or be impeached. Despite the language used, they can not be removed simply for "bad behavior," whatever that might be interpreted to mean.

As it is, a number of judges have been impeached through the years for committing crimes, as allowed in the impeachment clause in Article I. However, only one Supreme Court Justice has been impeached (Samuel Chase in 1804), though he was acquitted by the Senate.

Finally, the judges are to be compensated for their services. Unlike the President, whose salary can not be diminished nor increased during their term, a federal judge's salary can be increased. This is a simple matter of practicality: a federal judge serves for life, and a judge's salary would effectively diminish over time due to inflation if there was no way to adjust it.

However, there was some debate in the matter. Specifically, James Madison was concerned that giving Congress any control over the judges' salaries would be giving them some influence over the courts. In the end, though, the practical problem of inflation won out over the theoretical problem of legislative control over the courts.

Continue to Part 21: Article III, Section 2, Clause 1

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